Thomas H. Nelson

Dean, School of Textiles, NC State College
1872-1953

Thomas H. Nelson April 24, 1872 – April 11, 1953
Years of service at NC State 1901-1949

When Thomas Nelson joined the faculty at North Carolina State, he was well-educated and had extensive industrial experience.  He graduated from Preston Technical School, England in 1891 and began work at Richard Goodair Springfield Mill in Lancaster, England. (1) After immigrating to the United States he worked at the Ponemah Mills, Tafton, Connecticut.  Later, he went to Lowell, Massachusetts, and worked for three mills, including the Merrimac Mill.  He left Merrimac to become a clerk at Lowell Textile School and then went to Petersburg, Virginia, as Assistant Superintendent at a small mill. After a year and a half, he returned to Lowell as an instructor and took advanced work in designing and cloth analysis and received a Bachelor of Science degree in 1899. (2)

In 1901, Nelson was hired by NC State as Instructor in Weaving and Designing.  He joined a small faculty housed in the basement of Holladay Hall.  Great plans for a new building were underway thanks to the work of D.A. Tompkins, a leading Charlotte industrialist and great friend of NC State.  In 1906, Nelson was promoted to professor and head of department following the resignation of Mr. Wilson. He had to write annual reports to the president and these are saved in the NC State archives.  Awards flowed into the young department. (4) A gold medal was awarded at the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial for fabrics designed and woven by the students.   Medals were awarded by the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers.  His first book, “Weaving: Plain and fancy was published in 1907.  A few years later his second book, “Practical Loom Fixing,” was published.  This book was internationally received and used as a text by several schools. He wrote numerous articles pertaining to the textile industry for the leading textile trade publications.  In 1908, Nelson helped organize and was a charter member of the Southern Textile Association.  Since that time, five of his former students served as president of the association (up until 1953).

A disastrous fire ripped through the “new” textile building on March 25, 1914, and many thought the department would not survive.  How wrong they were.  Letters of support poured into Raleigh and appeared in newspapers across the state.  Quickly it was decided that the building would not only be rebuilt, it would be expanded by adding 25 feet to the west end. (5)

Instructor Nelson 1901

Dean Nelson 1925
Courtesy NCSU Archives

In 1925, when the Board of Trustees created the School of Textiles, Nelson became its first dean.  Two years later, the college conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in recognition of his 25 years of service with the college.  During his long tenure, students came from many states and nations.  He was known in textile circles from India to England to China and to countries in South America.  He was well-received in the smallest North Carolina mills.  Many knew his simply as “T-Foot” because his heel bone protruded well past the back of his ankle.

In addition to advancing the School of Textiles for 48 years of service, he held positions of international prominence and importance.  He served as a commercial agent for the Bureau of Manufacturers of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor, as special agent for the U.S. Tariff Board and as a consultant for the Tariff Commission.  As the school grew larger in the 1930s, he once again led the push for a new building.  Finally, a new building was approved by the General Assembly in 1937 to be located in a pecan grove on the corner of Hillsborough Street and Dan Allen Drive at the far west end of campus.  The building was dedicated March 5, 1940.

1940 – New building Dedication, Clyde Hoey, Heriot Clarkson and Thomas Nelson

1943 – New Dean Malcolm Campbell Chats with Dean Nelson
Courtesy NCSU Archives

Nelson was wearing out and needed to retire.  Loyal alumni came to the rescue and raised money to hire a fine new dean from outside the school.  In the meantime, he was elected first president of the newly-formed National Council of Textile School Deans in the spring of 1943.  Shortly thereafter, Malcolm Campbell was appointed Dean of the School of Textiles.  Nelson taught as professor of designing until July 1949.  He died in Raleigh on April 11, 1953.  He was married and had one daughter, Charlotte.

Dean Thomas Nelson Portrait Hanging in the College of Textiles

The new and expanded textile building was named Nelson Hall in 1954.(5)

 

Sources:

  1. Agromeck, 1902.
  2. Textile Forum, Vol. 2, No. 5 (May) 1943, pages 6-7-27.
  3. Agromeck 1904
  4. Annual Report to President D.H. Hill May 12, 1910.
  5. Mock, Gary N., A Century of Progress: The Textile Program North Carolina State University 1899-1999North Carolina Textile Foundation, Raleigh, 2001.
  6. “Dr. Thomas Nelson Dies at 80,” Textile Forum, April, 1953, page 27.