Sally Vance Cole Nelson

November 9, 1927 - January 21, 2024

Our family matriarch, Sally Vance Cole Nelson, passed peacefully away on Sunday, 21 January, 2024. She was 96.

Born in Abingdon, Virginia on November 9, 1927, daughter to Fred Newton Cole & Margaret Adams Vance Cole who have preceded her in death. Her brother Fred Newton Cole, Jr. also predeceased her. Raised in Southwest Virginia, she was loved & revered by her family as a force of nature, and treasured by her many friends for her generosity, creative flair, energy and sense of fun.

Sally attended St. Catherine’s School in Richmond and graduated in 1949 from Hollins College with a major in physics & minor in art. After graduation & a short stint working in New Orleans, she returned to Hollins to work in the Admissions Department for several years. It was here that she met, and later married, a young professor of geology at Virginia Tech, Bruce Nelson, who would take her on a lifetime of adventures far from her Southwest Virginia roots as he pursued his scientific studies. It was a marriage of the arts & the sciences.

Starting with summers on the Rappahannock River & Pawley’s Island, S.C., a year in Chioggia, Italy, followed by 10 years in Columbia, S.C, Sally & Bruce made a permanent move to Charlottesville in 1975, which has been her beloved home ever since. In the 1980s, travels and several sabbaticals & grants opened a new window on a new part of the world, Southeast Asia, that brought her much joy for the remainder of her life.

Wherever she went, she had a gift to engage with the locals, and sought out to the local art and cultural scene. In South Carolina, she was a driving force behind the establishment of a subscription Artists Series that brought world class artists, Joan Sutherland, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Rubenstein, among others, to Columbia to perform. Here in Charlottesville, Sally was a Founding Member of the University of Virginia Art Museum Volunteer Board; a member of Farmington Country Club & the Contemporary Club; and a member, former President & now, Honorary Member of Rivanna Garden Club, where, already in her 80s, she initiated an innovative gardening education project at the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center.

Known to her University Circle neighbors and student renters as ‘tenacious’, Sally advocated for the pristine upkeep of trees and trash free lawns, negotiating with the City of Charlottesville where necessary and handing out praise and brownies as motivation/rewards or before exams to neighboring students & fraternity houses.

Sally was an inspired, generous and creative hostess. She cultivated an interest in and tolerance and respect for diversity of opinions at her table, and love, laughter & silly fun in her home. When asked what her greatest achievement in life was, she said that she was often a real friend when people needed one.

She inspired loyalty, and raised eyebrows, from her support network: Peggy Clarity, Kim Volker, Alice Fischer, among others. The family would like to sincerely thank these women for their steadfastness and humor, as well as the staff and aides at the Colonnades, who so warmly eased her last ten years. In particular, we are especially grateful to Drs Tieu, Mullen, & REM supervisor Mei Ping Gong and her outstanding team at the Memory Unit there for their care, as well as to Kim Volker for her vigil, and the nurses from the Hospice of the Piedmont, who insured her comfort in the last days.

Sally is survived by her husband of 67 years, Bruce Warren Nelson, of Charlottesville; a daughter, Margaret Nelson Spethmann (Jochen Spethmann) of Hamburg, Germany; three grandchildren: Henry Justin Spethmann of London, United Kingdom; Laurens Nelson Spethmann, of Hamburg, Germany; Sara Lauren Spethmann (Philipp Duske) of Hamburg; & a great granddaughter, Margot Elinor Edith Duske of Hamburg. She is also survived by a niece, Susan S. Cole of Philadelphia, and nephew, Vance Parsons Cole, of Baltimore and many well-loved cousins of the next generations of her Virginia family.

A service to celebrate & give thanks for Sally will be held on Monday, March 18, 2024 at 11:00 a.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 400 Rugby Road, Charlottesville followed by a short reception. Ashes will be interred in a private gathering of family & close friends the next day at the University Columbarium, and at a later date in the family plot, in Southwest Virginia.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions can be made to one of the following organizations: The Sally Vance Cole Nelson Scholarship Fund at Hollins University, Box 6929, Roanoke, Virginia 24020 ( and scroll to the online donation in memory of someone section), or send checks payable to the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention Center and noted ‘Sally’s Garden Fund’, 195 Peregory Lane, Charlottesville, VA 22902 to help further fund Sally’s Gardening Education and Maintenance Project.

Additional details, or any changes/updates, will be posted as they become available at where condolences may be sent to the family on the tribute wall.