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Lamoure resident and retired VCSU professor reflects on the life of a beloved sister lost to AIDS and honored as a part of the National AIDS Memorial Quilt

Apr 3, 2024

Editor’s note: The National AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display at VCSU until April 18. 

There are some threads, like those between siblings, parents and children, that can withstand the pressures of time, grief and the unknown. Retired VCSU Professor and Lamoure resident Dr. Gary Ketterling knows this well.

A photo of Dr. Gary Ketterling with the panel on the AIDS quilt in memory of his sister Nancy.

This week Ketterling will join others in the Center for the Arts Gallery reflecting on literal and figurative threads that connect life, death and all things between. Two pieces of the National AIDS Memorial Quilt are on display and cover an entire wall of the art gallery. But the quilt is not just a regular piece of assembled fabric.  It is a part of the largest community arts project in history. The project focuses on honoring those whose lives have been lost to AIDS. The project has been ongoing for 35 years and there are more than 50,000 panels in the quilt in total honoring more than 110,000 individuals.

For Ketterling, there is one 3’x6’ panel of fabric in particular that stands out. The panel of sky-blue is adorned with hand-stitched music notes. It has messages of love, a white dove with a cross and a photo of his beloved sister, Nancy. The panel, hand-stitched by his mother, honors her daughter, Nancy and son-in-law, Elliot.

Nancy Ketterling in her nursing uniform upon her graduation from St. Lukes School of Nursing in Fargo.

The last time Ketterling saw this piece of fabric bearing his sister’s smile was 30 years ago in Washington D.C.. The quilt was assembled in 1996 and covered the entire National Mall. An estimated 1.2 million people traveled to see the display. The size of the quilt alone is stark reminder of the numerous lives impacted by AIDS since it was first clinically reported in 1981. The real impact is told through one story at a time, just like that of Nancy Nelson.

Nancy grew up in Lamoure, ND. She was part of a close family that included dad Lawrence, mom Lois, and little brother, Gary. When Nancy graduated from high school and moved to Fargo to pursue a career as a nurse, that was hard for her younger brother.

“We were close. Our family did everything together,” Gary Ketterling said. “She would come home on weekends and things, but it was hard.”

Time moved on and Gary found himself studying science at NDSU in Fargo. He earned his degree, taught in Australia, pursued more education and moved a few times to pursue a career as a science educator. Nancy became a nurse, married a veterinarian, Elliott Nelson, in 1971 and moved around the states for family and work. Eventually, Nancy and Elliott welcomed their son, Jeff to the world and landed in Ames, I.A., in 1985.

The Ketterling family would regularly gather for holidays and always stayed in touch with phone calls and letters. During Christmas in 1987, Gary was in the middle of pursuing his master’s degree in plant pathology, and Nancy and her family were unable to make it home for the holiday. Gary called Nancy to chat.

“Something just didn’t seem right,” he said. “She said Elliott’s got a bad cold.” A few weeks later, Ketterling’s parents called to say they were heading to Iowa because Elliott had become very sick. They were unsure how long he would live.

A photo of the Ketterling family during a wedding anniversary.

Ketterling was stunned.

He immediately followed them to Ames to be with his family and within days, Elliot was gone. Complications from fungal meningitis, or so he was told at the time, was the cause Ketterling said.

Even when it feels as if life should stop for grief, it doesn’t, and Ketterling vowed to help his sister and young nephew as much as possible. He began pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa so he could support them from 2.5 hours away instead of from across the country.

“Nancy asked me, ‘Is that what you want to do?’ and I said, ‘I think so. I really like this,’” Ketterling said. “She said she was glad that I would be a little bit closer, and then she said, ‘I have something to tell you.’”

“She said, ‘I’m HIV positive,’” Ketterling said. He was stunned again. Ketterling went into learning mode to learn as much as possible about AIDS. That, along with his work on his doctorate, trying to help support his sister, his nephew and do whatever he could to help his parents, made it an intense time period.

Nancy had been bearing the weight of a fatal diagnosis alone, but no longer. Gary encouraged her to tell their parents, and she did. She continued to work, be a mother and underwent different types of treatments available.

Medical treatment was only part of the post-diagnosis equation. The other component was the way others would potentially treat an individual with AIDS. People with HIV or AIDS, especially in the early 1990s, could face a mountain of stigma and misinformation. Nancy felt that keenly as a diabetic educator and wanted to minimize the impact on her work.

“At that time, you didn’t’ talk about AIDS,” Ketterling said. “She was concerned for Jeff and wanted to protect him.” Not only did patients, families and communities not talk openly about AIDS, treatment options were few and expensive. Those forces combined made the diagnosis even more devastating.

Eventually, the Ketterlings found safe spaces to talk with others about the situation. “Counselors and support groups made all the difference,” Ketterling said. Connecting Nancy with another registered nurse helped her process, and eventually Gary and his mom found safe spaces to connect with others affected by AIDS.

The obituary for Nancy Nelson

By 1991, Ketterling had finished his degree and landed a job at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. His parents had started staying in Iowa for long periods of time to care for Nancy. Then, on Sept. 30, 1991, he got the call no sibling ever wants to answer. The older sister he had adored his whole life was thin, frail and facing death. He sped back to Ames and spent time holding her hand and reassuring her of his love for her and Jeff.

“I told Nancy it’s okay,” Ketterling said. “It was a beautiful October day.”

Nancy, age 41, died at the Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, Iowa, on Oct. 1, according to her obituary, after “a long illness.” Parents grieved the loss of a daughter. A brother grieved the loss of a sister and life-long friend. A son prepared for life without a mother or father.

Although that grief has changed in the 33 years since Nancy’s obituary was written, her story is not over. Nancy left a lasting impact as a registered nurse and educator about health topics such as diabetes.

“You were a great nurse and your work touched many lives,” a card she received in early September 1991, said. “Your life has made a difference to so many, Nancy.”

Nancy’s death galvanized Lois Ketterling into action. Lois Ketterling prepared and submitted that sky-blue panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. She gave educational presentations, and shared her experiences with community groups, churches and others across North Dakota. She publicly spoke about AIDS in the hope that others could be empowered with that knowledge.

To guide her presentations, she created a stack of notecards. Her beautiful script outlines Nancy’s story and includes information about AIDS, but the top of the second card highlights her motivation in two simple words, “Our daughter.”

Simple words can rise above a diagnosis and tie many people together for life. Love, and the strength of character to share Nancy’s story, are part of the legacy of Lois Ketterling. Her stitching has forever enshrined Nancy Nelson’s story in the threads of panel 3747 of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.