EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - Claudia Jane Nelson, wife of 36 years, mother of three and longtime copy editor at the Vail Daily, died Tuesday afternoon of cancer, with her husband, Jeff Spanel, at her side. She was 60.
"She was a calming influence on a mostly younger staff, always lending an interested ear and some bright insights delivered gently, often with that smile," the Vail Daily's publisher and editor, Don Rogers, said. "She worked hard and was good at it. But her manner was light. She had a sweet sense of humor and while she took her work seriously, she didn't carry herself that way. People loved working with her, and loved her."
"She was always a wonderful adult presence in the newsroom," joked Cliff Thompson, with whom Nelson worked for nearly 15 years at the Avon-Beaver Creek (ABC) Times, later called the Vail Valley Weekly. "She was the best."
Hello, Jeff and governor
Born June 8, 1952, in Perry, Iowa, Nelson and her family moved to the Minneapolis area, where she graduated from Robbinsdale High School. Then it was off to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where Nelson majored in journalism, graduating in 1975.
During her senior year at Drake, Nelson met Jeff Spanel, who was attending Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, in what Jeff called "a little hippie bar," in Des Moines. They were introduced by one of Spanel's classmates at Iowa State. (Ironically, Nelson's mother and Spanel both took an English class taught by the same professor in Ames.)
While the two were dating long-distance with Spanel finishing up at Iowa State, Nelson got a job with the Creston News-Advertiser as a reporter. Nelson was covering the 1976 Iowa Caucus as the then-unknown governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, came through the southwestern corner of the state. Nelson ended up in the back seat of Carter's car, getting an interview with the eventual 39th president of the United States.
"That's something she's always talked about," Jeff said. "It was before security was such a big concern. She was riding in the car with Jimmy Carter."
Nelson and Spanel were married on May 29, 1976.
The newlyweds moved to Houston, and Nelson was the editor of the Bay Area Lifestyle News in nearby Nassau, Texas. When Spanel and his father bought out the business that would become Inter-Mountain Engineering in Eagle County in 1977, the couple moved to West Vail.
'That was Claudia'
The Spanel-Nelson clan eventually lived in Eagle-Vail and then Edwards. Their first daughter, Morgan, was born July 9, 1978. And a few years later, Spanel and Nelson had more good news.
"Claudia was having an ultrasound," Jeff said. "The tech guy said, 'Don't worry. Go back and tell the doctor that they're both fine.'"
The twins, Nick and Liz, were born Sept. 30, 1982.
About a year after Nick and Liz's arrival, Inter-Mountain Engineering was in Avon on Metcalf Road. Also a tenant in the building was the ABC Times.
"It was perfect," said Thompson, the paper's publisher. "She just walked down the stairs. The interview was very perfunctory. She was terrific."
Nelson did a little bit of everything with the ABC Times-The Vail Valley Times. She typed in submissions, edited copy, pasted the paper onto the boards in the days before computer layout software and proofed it, whatever was needed.
And it was there that Nelson displayed the cool temperament for which she was known, whether in her personal or professional life.
"She was slightly older than me, just a month, and I would always kid her about it," Thompson said. "I never let her forget about it. She just shook her head. You knew the words she was thinking and could have said, but she didn't. That was Claudia."
And that was always on display when the Eagle-Summit Publishing Co., (as the Vail Daily's parent company, Colorado Mountain News Media was known back in 1998) bought The Vail Valley Times.
Nelson worked in numerous capacities with CMNM publications, including The Vail Valley Times, Foco Hispanico, Mountain Homes and Properties and The Leadville Chronicle, to name a few.
"She had a great institutional knowledge of the Vail Valley and Eagle County, as well as a good eye for grammar," said Allen Best, who was with The Vail Valley Times from 1993 to 1997 and the Vail Daily in 1999. "It wasn't until later I realized what a great propensity I had for confusing 'from' from 'form.' Gosh, she saved my rear-end over and over."
In 2000, she was hired as a part-time copy editor with the Vail Daily and joined it full-time in December 2010.
"Claudia, in the eye of that hurricane, was just getting it done while the world swirled and clashed around her," Rogers said. "The only way you could tell she even noticed was that little twinkle in the eye and calm smile. I think she loved every moment and the people she shared those moments with."
Nelson was certainly not confined to the newsroom. She and Jeff raised their trio of children, who are now professional adults.
Morgan is a teacher leader in the ELA (English as a second language) program at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy. Morgan is also the head track coach at Aurora Central High School. (No surprise there. Morgan Spanel still holds Battle Mountain's discus record.)
Nick Spanel is an art teacher at Cherry Drive Elementary, while Liz works with Jeff at Inter-Mountain Engineering.
Claudia and Jeff drove countless miles to sporting events and assorted extracurricular activities for their children. And woe to the Spanel child who faxed home a college paper for Mom to check. Nelson proofed her kids' work as meticulously as she did at the newspaper. Claudia also edited papers for her nephews, nieces and a number of their friends, undoubtedly helping to increase grade-point averages.
An avid reader, Nelson also helped found The Mutual Fund Club, an investment club for women as well as the Vail Valley Mother of Multiples Club.
Nelson is preceded in death by her mother, Jane Nelson, and her mother-in-law, Fran Spanel.
Nelson is survived by her husband, Jeffrey Spanel; daughters, Morgan Spanel, of Denver, Elizabeth Spanel, of Edwards; son, Nicholas Spanel, of Denver; as well as her father, Gordon Nelson, (Bobbie), of Minneapolis; sisters Stephanie (Steve) Schmit, of Minneapolis and Charlotte Nisleit (Rick), of St. Paul, Minn.; brothers Douglas Nelson (Alison), of LeSueur, Minn., Jeffrey Nelson, of Minneapolis, and Greg Nelson (Kathy), of Dallas.
Nelson is also survived by her father-in-law, Charles Spanel, of Denver; brothers-in-law Toby Spanel (Carole), of Denver, and Brian Spanel (Kathy), of St. Louis; 18 nieces and nephews; and many wonderful friends.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made in Nelson's name at the U.S. Bank in Avon (15 Benchmark Road, 970-949-5995) with proceeds going to the Eagle Valley Library District and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.
At Nelson's request, the Spanels will be hosting a celebration of her life at the Eagle-Vail Pavilion Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m.
Staff writer Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.