Most of us hope, in whatever small way, we will have contributed to a better world by the time we leave it. Before Fresno resident and human rights activist Todd N. Nelson passed away, he decided to leave a legacy for the causes he cared about most. At a time when the burden of illness would consume many, Todd was considering how he could improve life for others.
Four years ago, after his father died in 2016, Todd realized his home and his health were deteriorating. He reached out for help from his aunt Joyce Rosenwald and her partner Jan Bateman who live in Corvallis, Oregon. The couple helped to arrange health care and assure Todd’s home was livable.
They provided him with emotional support and acceptance through his most challenging moments, then agreed to guide him through the process of creating a will and trust. Todd became interested in establishing a trust that would include donations to the organizations he valued. Due to his disabilities, Todd had been on a fixed income for most of his life, limiting the funds he could offer charities. However, after his father passed away, he was left with an inheritance to share.
Todd’s desire to leave a legacy became more urgent as his health declined. On March 27, 2017, with the assistance of an attorney, Todd established a trust that would allocate 10 percent of his estate to the LGBT Community Network (the non profit that encompasses LGBT Fresno) and 10 percent to the Human Rights Campaign. This unexpected, comparatively large donation came from an individual who grew up with many challenges.
A life-long resident of Fresno, Todd was born in 1968. From birth, he was profoundly hard-of-hearing. He was adopted as a one-year-old by Roger and Joni (Joyce’s sister) Nelson. His parents divorced, and his mother died when he was 14. Todd struggled with recurrent depression and social isolation throughout his life. In early adulthood, a diabetes diagnosis became an increasingly severe problem.
Joyce remembers Todd as a “sweet, shy child.” She believes that his sexual orientation presented further obstacles to his connections with others. Coming out and engaging in LGBT causes was a gradual process for Todd. The internet became a welcome tool, allowing him to learn about and connect with human rights issues.
Eventually, he reached a point where he was comfortable with his identity and wanted others to be as well. “He wasn’t very public, to begin with,” Joyce stated, “but more recently, he was proud of being gay.” Given Todd’s limited connections with LGBT people, Joyce and Jan were undeniably beacons of courage for him. He could count on them to look out for him as they looked out for themselves.
Joyce and Jan met while both were teachers in Albany, Oregon. They became casual friends and often participated in the same community softball and teachers’ bowling leagues. One day they realized that they had found soul mates in each other. In May 2014, after three decades together, Joyce and Jan were legally married on Kauai in a small family ceremony. Why did it take so long?
Laughing, Joyce recalled, “Jan kept asking ‘Will you marry me’ and I always responded, ‘Why ruin a good thing.'” Oregon legalized same-sex marriage that month, so their timing was impeccable. The two are enjoying their home, retirement, traveling, attending sports events, and a relationship that has not been ruined by their marriage.
They are also missing their nephew. Todd passed away on March 4, 2019. He was buried at the Chapel of the Light in Fresno, where both of his parents are interred. Todd requested this as his final resting place so the family would be, in his words, “together again.” He is buried in the rose garden next to his dad. “We are missing Todd, but we don’t miss his suffering. The last three years were very hard for him,” Jan said.
While reflecting on this time in Todd’s and their lives, Joyce and Jan said they would be eternally grateful for the kindness, generosity, and expertise of countless Fresno residents. The couple explained that caregiver Brandon Stephens, lifelong friend Nancy Richardson, realtor Carmela Nyberg, and attorneys Ruth Lind and Stefanie Krause, provided incredible support.
The legacy donation provided comfort, as well. Todd felt pride in knowing that part of his estate would continue to ensure others might not have to wait a lifetime to feel a sense of hope. “I think he would like to be remembered as a gay man supportive of all gay rights,” said Joyce. Jan added, “He was very concerned about human rights. He just felt that rights were rights, and all people should be taken care of.”