Ken Nelson 1928–2004

On Friday morning, March 25, 2005, my friend Maura Rieland, Stereophile's show coordinator through the second half of the 1990s, e-mailed me to say that she had just learned of the passing of Ken Nelson.

For those of you who didn't know him, Ken was a legendary figure in the audiophile publishing world for many years. Publisher of one of the daily newspapers of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, he was hired by Larry Archibald at the beginning of 1984 to be Stereophile's first full-time advertising representative. He had his own rep business, Nelson and Associates. The associates were Ken's sons. They sold advertising space for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and New York Mets. Ken used to joke that he, too, had been fired by George Steinbrenner.

Ken's love was the hi-fi business. Together with Larry Archibald, he was a partner in the early Stereophile Hi-Fi Shows. In January 1988 I became the only non-Nelson to become an "Associate." We divided up the territories into East and West of the Mississippi, and I also got the dealers. I was welcomed into the family.

From 1988 until the end of 1998, when Ken left Stereophile, we spoke to each other on the phone every working day—most days, more than once. Ken's was the only number on my speed dial. Our conversations covered all topics, mostly business but a lot about life and our lives. The phone was our water cooler. We called each other to be supportive, to gripe about our days and customers, to tell each other bad jokes. We were never far apart. Even when I formed my own company, he was supportive and we continued our personal and professional relationships without a hiccup.

Like most teams or marriages, we had some differences over the years, but nothing that couldn't be worked out. The mutual respect was always present. As the years went by and I grew older and further from him, I came to think of Ken as a mentor. I learned many things from Ken. I learned about being a good salesperson and about being a good person. Ken was both.

Each month, Ken would write a sales letter to Stereophile's enormous promo list. These letters became legendary in the audio business. He would quote from ancient scholars and philosophers. He would write a poem, or he'd quote from one. Frequently, a recipient would call to "discuss" the letter with Ken. Sometimes people would call to say that he was crazy. "Ahh! But I've got your attention!" he would say.

In addition to his devotion to his family and his job, Ken Nelson served his country in post-war Japan. He loved to read, he loved poetry, he loved music—especially jazz—and he loved fine wine.

Ken met his wife, Libby, when they were 16. They were married for over 50 years. He once told me that he was as crazy about his wife that day as he had been on the day he married her. Libby was the love of his life.

I never knew how old Ken was. He was timeless. He always looked the same. In my presence, someone once asked him his age. His response was, "Let's just say that I'm still younger than Paul Newman." Libby said that, at the end, he was one month into his 76th year and still as handsome as ever.

Ken suffered from muscular dystrophy. As it does, the disease progressively ate at him over the years, slowing him down but never stopping him from doing anything he really wanted to do. He used to joke that he was "one of Jerry's kids." Libby says that he was mobile until almost the end.

The end came for my friend on August 28, 2004. Ken's wish was to have his body donated to medical research. His hope was that he could help researchers learn something about muscular dystrophy. He didn't want any kind of service or funeral. His family did as he requested.

Ken leaves behind Libby and their children, David, Jimmy, Danny, and Judy, and five grandchildren. He also leaves behind many friends and business associates who will miss him very much.

If you knew Ken and would like to do something to honor his memory, here are two suggestions. You can make a donation, in his memory, to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The other is very simple: When next you find yourself with a fine glass of wine or spirits, raise the glass and give a nod to Ken. He would have appreciated the gesture.—Laura LoVecchio

Other tributes appeared in June & July 2005 (Vol.28 Nos.6 & 7):

Laura LoVecchio says pretty much all that needs to be said about Ken Nelson. I echo her respect for someone from whom I, too, learned much. Ken threw out ideas as an 18-wheeler throws up autumn leaves, but more important, he was not infatuated by his own ideas. When you pointed out that 99% of the ideas wouldn't work, his eyes would twinkle. He was happy that the remaining 1% had fallen on receptive ears.

I was nervous about our future relationship when I took over Stereophile's editorial helm in 1986—Ken had considerably more gravitas than any advertising executive with whom I had worked—and I was understandably concerned about what would happen the first time one of my reviews was going to hurt one of Ken's clients. I shouldn't have worried. Ken was fully supportive of my need to put the interests of Stereophile's readers first: "Without editorial integrity I'd have nothing to sell."

Salut, Ken.—John Atkinson

I'd like to add a few words to the tribute Laura LoVecchio paid Ken Nelson in the June issue ("As We See It," p.5). My nine-year–long experience with Ken preceded his association with Stereophile, when I joined St. Regis Publications in 1968, fresh out of college and green as one could be after a college major of English Lit (ie, Cocktail Parties 101).

Ken was VP of Sales at the trade magazine publishing house; I was Associate Editor and sole full-time staffer at the leading trade magazine for hi-fi dealers. The ever savvy Ken saw to it that I spent my first week on the job—not behind a typewriter, but on the floor of a local hi-fi store—where I learned a great deal about the industry where I was to spend my entire career.

One memorable event: During a slow period, I started dusting off the equipment, only to have the owner rush over to stop me, exclaiming that people seeing the dusty gear thought they were getting a discount!

The advantage of a small company meant that rapid advancement was possible, as I became editor and eventually Editorial Director of many titles—which meant working with Ken, as Laura says, "like a team or a marriage...the mutual respect was always present." We had made our peace years before when he wanted to sell a banner ad on the front cover of one of my magazines. Winning that editorial battle meant winning his respect—as JA points out above.

Ken and I launched many new publications, including the first daily newspaper at the CES. Some lived, most were killed off, but Ken was never at a loss for a new title, a new venture where he saw opportunities.

All of the agreeable experiences that Laura Lovecchio mentioned in June are my fond memories of Ken, as well. Yes, he was an ad salesman, but he was also a towering presence in the audio industry. For me, Ken was my constant mentor—I had to work hard not to always be in his shadow! Not that Ken would want me to be...

Whenever I attend an industry trade show, I still half expect to encounter Ken in his usual "station"—patrolling the lobby, often with his beloved Libby at his side, fearlessly proving that his debilitating disease was not going to get the best of Ken Nelson.—Bryan Stanton
J. B. Stanton Communications
NY/CT/LA/Hong Kong