Cathy May Nelson

May 1, 1946 – October 30, 2020

Cathy May Bamburg was born with the essence of cross-cultural sensitivity and it manifested itself early. Only a few years after the end of WWII, her father, a U.S. Air Force officer, was assigned to Portugal and he elected to bring his young family with him. Cathy went to live in Lisbon and attended a British school. She was six. Since then, she was never without a valid passport.

The origins of Cathy May Nelson’s virtually lifelong career in the field of English as a Second Language education were her childhood and early adult years in a variety of international milieus. After Lisbon, she lived and attended school in Wiesbaden, West Germany, and Karachi, (then West) Pakistan, with stints in the U.S. in between. 

Right after graduating from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma in 1968, Cathy spent a year at the University of Bruxelles, Belgium, as a Fulbright Scholar. It was a challenging year, but she came away speaking French as her first second language. She had met her future husband, Pete, in Karachi at the tender age of 15; they saw each other only sporadically until they married in 1969.

Pete’s career was in international hospitality. They lived in Caracas, Venezuela, their first year – and later in Barbados (then British West Indies) – before migrating to Washington, D.C.  Cathy’s first teaching job was high school English at an American/International school in Caracas that year, thanks to Pete’s boss’ wife being aware of her academic prowess, absence of teaching experience notwithstanding … and her being on the school’s board. After several years in Washington not teaching, they returned to Caracas, this time with an infant son.  She returned to teaching at the same high school from four years earlier while she honed her Spanish, her second second language.

After four years, there were two more homes overseas: Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in West Africa, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on the Persian Gulf.  In both, Cathy was a teacher in international schools, this time at middle school level.  They returned to the U.S. permanently in 1982.  Kimberly May had arrived while they were in Caracas.  She is today a Spanish teacher and world languages department chair in AA County.

Once settled near Annapolis, Cathy continued to teach wherever, whenever she could.  In the late 1980s, she discovered the Instructional Systems Development with ESOL Concentration and earned her Master’s degree from UMBC. She began as a fulltime ESL teacher in AA County in 1990. All those years living, studying, and teaching overseas clearly served as a solid foundation of cross cultural understanding. 

Alongside her demanding career, Cathy (and Pete) served for over 20 years as volunteers in a variety of roles for the venerable  D.C.-based international student exchange organization, Youth For Understanding, interacting with students from over 30 countries living with families in the U.S. and preparing American students going abroad.  She loved the many hours she devoted to that pro bono work. They themselves hosted three times.  

While working with YFU Cathy experienced a remarkable event In mid-August, 1991. She escorted a group of some 20 American YFU students to Moscow, then still the USSR. It was indeed an honor for her to have been charged with that responsibility as this was YFU’s first student exchange program with the Soviet Union.  Met upon arrival by YFU staff, the kids were immediately dispersed among their host families all over the city.  Cathy, too, was housed with a Russian family.  

The next morning, August 18th, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest by high-ranking members of his own government, military and police forces.  Cathy found herself in the middle of an attempted coup d’état with her 20 Americans scattered all over a city now in utter disarray.  No one knew what might happen next.  Clearly everyone was unsettled, nervous, even afraid.

Long story shorter, under the direction of YFU in D.C. the Moscow staff somehow corralled the students and made arrangements to transfer them all to Helsinki, Finland, where YFU had a strong, active presence.  Meanwhile, Cathy “waded among tanks” to get to the American Embassy for help and advice on evacuating everyone.

The coup failed.  Moscow returned to normal.  All but one of the students returned to spend a year there.

Cathy retired as ESL Coordinator in 2009. She spent three years as an ELL/Title III Specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education in Baltimore, then was tapped for special assignments in advanced ESL programs universities around Baltimore. Sadly those brief assignments were cut short by the earliest signs of dementia. However, in 2012, while still well enough to appreciate it, her career was fittingly capped by the well-deserved honor of a Lifetime Achievement Award by Maryland TESOL.

Cathy died of Alzherimer’s disease on October 30th, 2020, comfortably ensconced in a small assisted living facility directly next door to her home on Kent Island. She was 74.