When James O. Nelson was in law school at the University of Miami, he was involved in a car accident and emerged as a hero.
“He lifted a 1960s automobile by himself to release the man trapped under the car,’’ said Nelson’s brother Gary, a longtime reporter for WFOR-CBS 4 in Miami.
The 6-foot 4-inch 270-pound Big Jim Nelson, as his relatives and friends called him, died Friday at South Miami Hospital after a long career as a lawyer. The cause was complications of heart disease, his brother Gary said. Nelson was 76.
“My brother was a very strong man,” said Gary. “He fought a good fight until his last breath.”
Jim Nelson was the son of a carpenter born in Gainesville. He played football in college and served as a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division as well as a member of the elite Special Forces reserve.
After graduating from the University of Florida, Nelson moved to Miami to enroll in the University of Miami’s law school in 1956.
While working full-time in construction, Nelson was the only night student ever elected president of the Student Bar Association.
Nelson worked as an editor for the Student Law Review and served on the UM General Alumni board of directors and Law Alumni board of directors. He received the Outstanding Law Senior Ibis award and was a member of Iron Arrow, the highest honorary society of UM.
His first job as a lawyer was as a plaintiff’s attorney with Shelby Highsmith, who later became a U.S. District Court judge in Miami.
Nelson later served as regional corporate counsel for Travelers Insurance Co. before beginning a mediation practice, which he continued until his death.
He handled countless cases — battered women, bankruptcies, criminal defenses, traffic offenses — pro-bono, at no charge.
He was a member of state and federal pro-bono programs, the South Dade Mental Health Foundation board and the Concept House board.
“He was a gentle giant loved by all,” said Alan Goldfarb, a lawyer with 40 years of experience.
Goldfarb met Nelson 36 years ago and shared office space with him for 10. They often met in court as opponents. “He always had the ability to be liked even by opposition,” said Goldfarb.
Nelson was one of the first mediators in the state of Florida. “He had the ability to make all parties happy in a settlement,” Goldfarb said.
The Eleventh Judicial Circuit Nominating Commission nominated him for circuit judge seven times.
But it was his compassionate soul what made him special, according to his brother Gary. “If you read the dictionary’s definition of decent and good, you’ll see Jim Nelson,” Gary said.
In addition to his brother Gary, Nelson is survived by his life partner, Linda Sandberg; sons Brian of Miami and Bruce of White Stone, Va.; daughters Kathy Cabrera of Charlotte, N.C., and Lauren Stern of Pinecrest; step-daughter, Heather Calhoon of Hollywood; brothers Ronald of Garland, Texas and Michael of Corsicana, Texas; sister, Diana K. Smith of Marina Del Rey, Calif; nine grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Nelson will be honored with memorial services at the University of Miami’s Newman Alumni Center, 6200 San Amaro Dr., Coral Gables, at 6 p.m. Wednesday.