In Memoriam: Sherman E. Nelson, Ph.D.

Born the youngest of six children in Northeast Minneapolis in 1928, Dr. Sherman E. Nelson died in February of this year. Sherm was the therapist’s therapist.  In 1966, I met him while he was treating another graduate student. Over the years, he treated many. He was a professor in the clinical psychology program at the U of M and taught and mentored many until his retirement in 2000.

He was the youngest in his doctoral class in 1952, and went to work at the Minneapolis VA Hospital.  After three years, Sherm became the second local psychologist to go into private practice.  His career was spent at the Minneapolis Clinic of Psychiatry and Neurology, where he headed the psychology department.  His wife, Denise Lillian Nelson, is also a psychologist as is one of his daughters, Liane Nelson.

While Sherm was one of the early volunteers at the Walk-In Counseling Center in 1969 and 1970, his main influence was over young clinicians in training, many of whom would credit him with helping them personally and professionally to become good psychologists.  Sherm taught one of the few therapy courses in the clinical program, gathering graduate students in the evenings, and playing audiotapes of different therapists.  His normal assignment to us was to listen for what therapists had in common.  He believed, and we came to believe, that good therapists shared certain traits, despite variability in therapeutic schools of thought.

Sherm also modeled good inter-professional relationships and teamwork, and was well respected by neurologists, psychiatrists, and social workers at the clinic.  He had an inquiring mind and also modeled the scientist-practitioner approach (also known as the Boulder Model).  He carried on correspondence with a number of people in the field, and very much kept alive the sort of inquiry common earlier in the history of our field.  He was as bright, energetic, and sensitive as they come.

As a supervisor, he taught me not to fear my mistakes, and was very supportive when I faced a challenge.  There is a story I tell when I teach about clinical supervision about a foreign student whom I treated pro-bono for eight months, who brought a thank-you gift to the last session.  Despite the rule against accepting gifts, it did not seem right to turn it down, so I thanked the client and accepted it.  When I went in to confess my rule breaking, his response was “Thank God you had the common sense to break that rule….”  He will be missed by all in the psychology community.

The Memorial Service will take place on Saturday, June 17, from 2 to 5 PM, at the Unity Unitarian Church, 733 Portland Ave., St. Paul, in the Ames chapel. There will be refreshments following the memorial. Come and share your memories.

Gary R. Schoener, M.Eq., LP 

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