Remembering Chuck Nielson, 1937-2012

In my 30-plus years in journalism, 12-plus as HRE‘s managing editor, I’ve gotten pretty good at taking sad or momentous news in stride.

But when I learned on Monday that Chuck Nielson, former CHRO for Texas Instruments and highly respected HR thought leader, had died at the way-too-early age of 75, I reacted personally — as if I had just lost a family member or lifelong friend.

In reality, I did become Nielson’s friend six years ago, when I stayed with him and his wife, Jean, for two days in their mountaintop ranch outside Lindrith, N.M., to get what I needed for this January 2007 feature about the man, “A Different Vision.” I remember thinking long and hard about that headline, befitting a business leader who rose through the HR-leadership ranks over a 33-year career with TI, never letting on to colleagues and co-workers (some of whom were no doubt reading about it for the first time in my story) that he was legally blind.

Two days ago, Monday morning, I came into work to a voice mail from his son, Mike. His father was gravely ill with pancreatic cancer and the family was hoping to secure the photo I had taken of him during one of many long interviews — this one in an old one-room schoolhouse that he and his wife had brought back to life for the Lindrith community. That’s the photo above. I also was able to transfer it electronically so it will be sitting front and center at his memorial service this Friday. (He died just a few hours after I listened to that voice mail.)

There’s so much I could tell you here about the man I came to know over only two days — a man whose radical ideas about HR leaders becoming business leaders and corporate catalysts for the business conversation, possibly even dropping the HR designation, appears more plausible today.

Described by leaders of his profession as a man before his time when it came to achieving a strategic partnership with his CEO and successfuly communicating business objectives throughout his company, Nielson told me six years ago he could see a time “when there won’t be a separate people function because people will define the business more than product, plant, service or history. They’ll be the differentiators — through talent, creativity, innovation and personal ownership [and everyone, from the C-suite on down, will] own that responsibility.”

I could tell you about all his incredible accomplishments in HR (read my story for that); his personal feats, like the fitness room he built into his home so he could stay in top shape, his prowess at fly-fishing, his downhill ski trips in which he’d be told where and when to turn by someone behind him tuned to his earphones. I could tell you about his being an appointee to President George H. Bush’s 1998 Drug Advisory Council, a longtime fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources, a carrier of the Olympic torch through Santa Fe, N.M., for the 2002 Olympic Games … the list goes on and on.

In essence, Nielson was a businessman who expected excellence from himself and everyone else in his sphere. He argued in my story for a better business world in which employers would advocate more realistically for disabled employees by expecting excellence from them too, and giving them the tools they need to contribute fully to the organization, rather than focusing simply on accommodating them and following the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He refused to hide from the world behind his own blindness; on the contrary, he told me, “I’ve spent my life working hard not to be known as the blind HR guy, but the HR guy who happens to be blind.”

I could keep rambling on about this remarkable individual who became my friend six years ago. But I’d rather you hear from a close, personal friend of Nielson’s with far more years in his corner than me — Bill Conaty, former senior vice president of human resources for General Electric and former chair of the NAHR:

I was saddened to learn of Chucks’ passing. He was a giant in our HR world and a personal friend. When I think of Chuck, I remember an extremely courageous, highly competent, quick-witted, straight-talking, no-BS guy who contributed immensely to raising the bar for the human resource function. We will miss his presence and contributions to our field!

In a follow-up email, Conaty shared with me that he “loved the guy.” For the piece of Chuck Nielson I had the honor to know, so did I.