When the Nelson family moved to Campbell River, B.C. in 1963, their daughter Michele was already showing her deep love and devotion to animals, along with a strong work ethic. Most notably, she was committed to caring for elderly animals or those in ill health, and within a couple of years began work as a kennel keeper at the local SPCA. She was a companion for many dogs over her life.
Recalled her mother Donna Nelson, "Michele adopted the oldest, saddest dogs from shelters and gave them the best years of their lives. Everyone always said they would love to 'come back' as one of Michele's dogs or cats."
Michele also enjoyed fitness and had a very good business sense. In the 1980’s, she purchased 1080 Hemlock Street in Campbell River and opened Nautilus Gym, a successful enterprise for many years. The gym was a comfortable place where locals could work out, enjoy a sauna (having both men’s and women’s), meet others, and play the music loud!
It was during this time she met and married her husband, Danny, and consequently moved to the Comox Valley. While retaining ownership of 1080 Hemlock, she closed the gym, then leased the space to the local community theatre group, Rivercity Players Society.
Under her ownership, she okayed many changes within the building so the group could create a stage, seating, dressing rooms, and construction area to build sets. It was, however, up to the Rivercity Players to find funding which would allow the interior to meet city bylaws for holding public performances; several attempts were made at this. Meanwhile, the group rehearsed there, and then hoisted their productions in the 450-seat Tidemark Theatre, a kilometre away.
In 2011, the society was coming into a revitalized era. They were generally planning on renovations for meeting those aforementioned local bylaws, something which Michele fully supported.
With her permission in the spring of 2012, the exterior walls were given a fresh coat of paint and a large mural created on the side of the building. Plans were set in motion to refurbish much of the interior, update the furnace, build a technician’s booth, and fully meet city codes for entertaining the public in a perfectly cozy 99-seat venue. The energy was electric, and the board of directors, members and volunteers were active and happy.
Little did the society know that Michele had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her plan was to give them the property as a gift.
After the death of her husband in the summer of 2012, Michele made decisions to bequeath $1 million to three local charities, namely Comox Valley Hospice Society, Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society, and a local animal welfare organization.
Meanwhile, she also worked quietly with the Rivercity Players’ president and treasurer to coordinate the gift of 1080 Hemlock Street to the society, the details of which were to be kept private while the legalities were worked out.
Signing over the ownership of the property was finalized at a hastily called board meeting at 5:00 p.m. on October 31, 2012.
More than ever, Rivercity Players understood the importance of their renovation plans with this wonderful gift. Michele had entrusted them to go ahead and realize their vision of the place they had called home - “the clubhouse” - for so many years. The work, the volunteers, the homemade hearty meals, the energy, the devotion… all of these were felt and shared within the walls over the next six months.
The building was given two new names. First, the building was officially named The Michele (Nelson) Woodrow Building; secondly, it became locally known as The Rivercity Stage.
On a sunny day in late May of 2013, a trio of Rivercity Players Society board directors visited Michele and her parents in Comox. The directors brought pictures, videos, and a short movie to show the results of months of hard work to her generous gift. Though she was obviously tired and ill, Michele made tea and talked with the visitors for over an hour, and thoroughly enjoyed viewing the results of the society's labours. That day, her valuable time and energy from this amazing woman was another gift. Several weeks later, Michele died at home, lovingly surrounded by her family.
The Rivercity Stage had a full day Grand Opening / Open House on September 14, 2013, and has held sold out shows for almost every performance since.
We, the Rivercity Players Society, remember Michele not only as generous and humble, but also supportive, kind, and interesting, and we are all grateful for her outstanding contribution to this group and the community as well. Because of her, this little theatre is living the dream.
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