Fighter for jus­tice and eq­uity was ‘the best of lis­ten­ers’

David Nasby Ed­u­ca­tor, philanthropy ex­ec­u­tive

Star Tribune - - REMEMBERING - By RANDY FURST • randy.furst@star­tri­bune.com

David Nasby com­mit­ted his life to help­ing the less for­tu­nate — from his days as the head of a small al­ter­na­tive school in south Min­neapo­lis to his work as an ex­ec­u­tive at the Gen­eral Mills Foun­da­tion, which dis­pensed mil­lions of dol­lars in phil­an­thropic do­na­tions.

A de­vout Lutheran, Nasby bridged the world be­tween cor­po­rate lead­ers and some of the state’s most prom­i­nent ac­tivists, and some­how won the trust of both. This was re­flected at his funeral last week at Luther Sem­i­nary in St. Paul, where a di­verse crowd of about 200 turned out. David Tiede, re­tired sem­i­nary pres­i­dent, de­scribed Nasby as “a cham­pion of so­cial jus­tice” and Amer­i­can In­dian Move­ment (AIM) leader Clyde Bel­le­court sang an honor song in Ojibwe.

Nasby, 78, of Min­neapo­lis, was in de­clin­ing health and died in his sleep on Nov. 5, said his wife, Karen, a re­tired Hen­nepin County pub­lic de­fender.

Nasby re­tired in 2004 af­ter 25 years as di­rec­tor of com­mu­nity af­fairs and vice pres­i­dent of the Gen­eral Mills Foun­da­tion, us­ing his in­flu­ence to help fun­nel ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to a large range of so­cial pro­grams.

“Ac­tivists very of­ten ex­press them­selves strongly,” said Reatha Clark King, for­mer pres­i­dent and chair­woman of the Gen­eral Mills Foun­da­tion board. “We didn’t run from them when they showed their anger. In­stead we lis­tened, and David was the best of lis­ten­ers, and he could hear what peo­ple were say­ing.”

Bel­le­court said Nasby “fell in love” with AIM and funded many pro­grams the group sup­ported, in­clud­ing In­dian youth ca­noe trips on the Mis­sis­sippi River and the Le­gal Rights Cen­ter. “He walked in Je­sus Christ’s foot­steps, but he also walked in Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ foot­steps,” said Bel­le­court. “When I asked him for help, I didn’t have to ask him twice. He knew what we needed.”

Spike Moss, a long­time Min­neapo­lis civil rights ac­tivist, said Nasby saw to it that the foun­da­tion un­der­wrote the Leo John­son Drum Corps, help­ing to pay the cost of drums and uni­forms, ho­tel rooms and travel costs for 150 youths who per­formed across the coun­try. He said Nasby also raised money to fund the com­ple­tion of the first Martin Luther King Me­mo­rial build­ing in At­lanta af­ter Moss told him of ma­jor fi­nan­cial prob­lems. “Most peo­ple didn’t know that Dave Nasby got it fin­ished,” Moss said.

Nasby was born in Chicago, the son of a Lutheran min­is­ter. He grad­u­ated from Luther North High School, and went to St. Olaf Col­lege in North­field where he met and mar­ried Karen. He grad­u­ated from St. Olaf in 1963, and Luther Sem­i­nary in 1966.

The cou­ple spent two years to­gether work­ing for the Peace Corps in the Philip­pines. He was hired as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of The City, a drop-in cen­ter and al­ter­na­tive school in Min­neapo­lis, and per­suaded Min­neapo­lis Pub­lic Schools to ac­credit the classes. Many of the stu­dents were dropouts or had ju­ve­nile records, and the school helped many of them get a high school diploma.

“He was just a dy­namic spirit,” re­called Gary Bris­bin, who taught there with his wife, Gail. “Everybody, the stu­dents and the staff, felt like they be­longed.”

Later, at Gen­eral Mills, he over­saw grants to a va­ri­ety of or­ga­ni­za­tions, among them the Penum­bra The­atre, which fo­cuses on African-Amer­i­can plays. One of his fa­vorite projects, Clark King said, was a $200,000 grant to the Na­tional Coun­cil of Churches in the 1990s to help re­build churches that had been burned down in three South­ern states by arsonists.

“David had faith in peo­ple and he lived his faith,” said Clark King. “He had an abil­ity to re­late to peo­ple from the most down-and-out to the high­est level of power in so­ci­ety.” Nasby also chaired the board of Luther Sem­i­nary. The Nas­bys had a cabin along Lake Su­pe­rior that he in­vited his ac­tivists friends to visit, among them Sharif Wil­lis, who used his gang af­fil­i­a­tions to try to end lo­cal street vi­o­lence through a group called United for Peace, which Nasby sup­ported. The group col­lapsed af­ter the mur­der of Min­neapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cer Jerry Haaf in 1992. Wil­lis wound up serv­ing 25 years in fed­eral prison for an un­re­lated crime.

“He came to visit me in ev­ery [prison] fa­cil­ity I was at,” said Wil­lis. “He would al­ways have some­thing that was hi­lar­i­ous and raised my spir­its . ... He was kind and con­sid­er­ate and he wanted the best for hu­man­ity.”

In ad­di­tion to his wife, Nasby is sur­vived by a son, Teodoro, of Fal­con Heights, and a daugh­ter Ser­gia Hay, of Ta­coma, Wash.

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