Like the epic hero Odysseus, Cornell alumnus Steve Nelson ’62 returned to Ithaca to share his life of adventure, including conducting civil rights research in the Andes, graduating from Harvard Law School, resisting the Vietnam War draft, and managing a monumental rock and blues club, where he booked The Velvet Underground.
“My odyssey began in Ithaca and it took me 10 years to get home, to figure out what that was,” Nelson said. “I had to grapple with what’s home, what does that mean?”
His book, Gettin’ Home: An Odyssey Through the ‘60s, details the many twists and turns he took on his journey, beginning during his time as an undergraduate math major at Cornell and ending after his time managing the club The Boston Tea Party.
Nelson returned to campus for a book signing in The Cornell Store on Friday and to donate a collection of photos and memorabilia from his time spent researching in Peru to the University archives.
“Where I started in June 1961,” Nelson told The Sun, “and where I wind up almost 10 years later – a lot of things changed.”
He was able to conduct his 1961 research through a grant given to him as part of the Cornell-Peru Project, he said. The project was centered in Vicos, an indigenous community in the mountainous region of Peru that relied on a serfdom to produce crops and other products.
According to Nelson, the project was “a pioneering program of land reform, economic and social development and, ultimately, the liberation of the Vicosinos from centuries of feudal servitude.”
Nelson wrote his Cornell-Peru research paper on secondary education in the village after watching one of the brothers in his host family become the first in the village to pursue an education past grade school.
While living in Vicos, Nelson observed the prejudice that indigenous people faced and the outdated feudal system that the members of the community had to work under.
Although working in Vicos exposed him to the hardships that the members of the community had to endure, there were many positive moments throughout his time there. Nelson recounted one of his more memorable experiences when his host father bought him a traditional set of clothing, which he wore to a staff meeting at the Cornell headquarters in Vicos.
“Sometimes in those meetings two or three of the local Vicosinos would wander in and hang around … they would tend to stand against the wall on the side. So I shuffled into the meeting to the side and nobody recognized me until one of the women in our group said ‘Steve!’,” about halfway through the meeting, Nelson said.
“In their eyes, I passed for a Peruvian … being on the other side of that racial and cultural divide, even for a few minutes, was a surprising experience,” he said, and one that would stick with him when he left Peru.
Nelson felt “alienated” upon his return to the states and experienced culture shock moving from one community that was heavily centered around family and cooperation to another that – at the time – had a social life centered around a very competitive greek system.
After graduating Cornell, Nelson attended Harvard Law School. In 1966, following law school, Nelson became a draft resister of the Vietnam War. After a short stint in Washington working for NASA, he found himself back in Boston and “through a series of coincidences,” became familiar with The Velvet Underground, whom he first heard playing at The Boston Tea Party, a popular rock and blues music venue boasting artists from Pink Floyd to Elton John.
Without any background working in clubs or the music industry, Nelson was asked to become the manager of The Boston Tea Party, where he booked rock band The Velvet Underground “probably more times than really anybody else during the time,” he said.
Nelson was inspired to write his book by looking through the photographs of his time in Peru and found a story in them, “somewhat inadvertently.” He wanted to capture what it was like to experience all that he did.
“Just be forewarned, this is a book about a young man coming of age in the 60s,” Nelson said. “There’s sex, drugs and rock and roll.”