Dr. Derrick Nelson: Leader Among Leaders

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By Fidelia Sturdivant, Retired Principal of East Orange School District  


If a school principal is an educational leader, and a 20-year Army Reserve officer is a military leader, how does one describe a person like Dr. Derrick Nelson who is both — a leader among leaders?


As a veteran principal with over 25 years of administrative experience, I was proud to know Dr. Nelson, the recently deceased principal of Westfield High School in New Jersey. Derrick died from complications of a bone marrow donation procedure to help a 14 year old boy in France,  whom he had never met. This heroic deed is typical of Derrick’s legacy to help other people regardless of age, country, race or economic status.


The first year of my journey with Derrick began more than a decade ago when I received an email from NJPSA/FEA  Leaders-to-Leaders 2-year Residency Program, that I had been assigned to mentor a newly appointed Assistant Principal at Park Avenue School in Orange New Jersey named Derrick Nelson. During our very first meeting, I could immediately tell that Derrick was special and was going to be an outstanding leader. Derrick’s commitment to address the needs of his students, the teachers and the students parents was exhilarating and inspiring, and his passion for leading the charge to improve student learning in his building was as dynamic as it was genuine.


The Westfield student newspaper quoted Dr. Nelson’s conversation before undergoing the bone marrow procedure: “If it’s just a little bit of pain for a little bit of time that can give someone years of joy, it’s all worth it.” Dr. Nelson lived his life thinking about and doing for others. “Lead by example” signified his style, as a Westfield student shared advice that was given to him by his Principal, “If you are in a position to help someone, you do it.”

I was and will always be so very proud of Derrick’s achievements as a school principal and as a human being. More importantly, I will always be proud to call him my friend. The headline in last week’s Star-Ledger story noted, “He left a handprint on all of our hearts.” That statement by students from Westfield High School truly epitomizes a “Leader Among Leaders.”


Rest in peace my good friend and colleague. You certainly made a difference and set an example that we will never forget.