WESTFIELD, NJ — Community members are mourning the loss of a beloved high school principal who died over the weekend — a passing that follows his bone marrow donation.
Family members were still making the funeral arrangements for Dr. Derrick Nelson, said his 82-year-old father, Willie Nelson, speaking with TAPinto Westfield on Tuesday afternoon. Westfield community members have set a vigil for Wednesday night.
Dr. Nelson, 44, died at Hackensack University Medical Center in Bergen County on Sunday night, his father said. Nelson had taken a leave of absence from the high school, said Willie Nelson.
Community members have organized a vigil in Dr. Nelson’s honor in front of Westfield High School, 550 Dorian Road. It is set for 8:15 p.m., the organizers announced.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, School District Superintendent Margaret Dolan remembered Nelson, who began his career as an assistant principal at Roosevelt Intermediate School in 2010, after serving in school administrative roles in Orange.
“He understood that he was a role model at all times,” Dolan said. “He knew he was a role model for students, for the staff and for his colleagues; and he never forgot that. He had a strong moral compass, perhaps the strongest moral compass I have ever experienced.”
Counselors have been made available for students to discuss the loss, Dolan said.
Dr. Nelson had lived in nearby Plainfield, where he was an active member of the community, said Dolan, who deferred to Nelson’s family for details on his medical condition.
Dr. Nelson’s father told TAPinto Westfield the specifics of his son’s death were not fully known as of Tuesday. Numerous news outlets have reported the death followed the late school principal's donation of bone marrow earlier this year.
The student newspaper at Westfield High School, the Hi’s Eye, had reported in February that Nelson donated the marrow to be given to a boy in France.
“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 then told the newspaper, whose staff is this week is working to memorialize the late principal.
Hi’s Eye editors Avery Conrad and Adam Holtzman, who came to cover Tuesday’s news conference, found themselves a part of the story as they provided comments to reporters.
“Even if you never even spoke a word with him, his impact was felt the moment you walked in as a freshman or the moment you left,” said Conrad.
Dr. Nelson had served more than 20 years as an Army reservist. He has started his career in education as a teacher in his hometown of Plainfield before his 2010 start in the Westfield School District.
The story continues below the video.
The students were among many to offer memories of Nelson following the news of his death.
Robin Halterman recalled when her daughter, Layla, then a junior, became ill and Dr. Nelson offered his support, saying that he would be praying for her daughter.
“Dr. Nelson was brave in many ways but, most importantly, he was brave in letting us know he was a Christian and believed in prayer,” Halterman told TAPinto Westfield. “He also asked that if we needed anything, to reach out to him.”
Mike Cohen, who had interviewed Dr. Nelson in 2017, for a podcast published by TAPinto Westfield, on Tuesday recalled the then principal’s thoughts on teamwork and discipline.
“What I came away with was what an amazing journey he had been on and how proud he was, and how proud that his family was of all that he had accomplished in his life and really all the amazing impact that he had on so many people and kids in all of his academic settings,” Cohen said.
Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh