Martha Len Nelson, a longtime Denton volunteer and civic leader, died Saturday at the age of 90. Her friends remember Nelson as a tireless advocate for the community and a backbone among Denton’s arts boosters.
Nelson was a Denton native and the last living founding member of the Denton Benefit League, a local nonprofit she helped create to raise money for Denton County nonprofits. The league was just one of the initiatives Nelson worked on over the years.
“I always said I could run flat-footed as long as I’m alive and not accomplish nearly as much as Martha Len,” said longtime friend Peggy Capps.
Nelson graduated from Denton High School and went on to earn both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees — in music education and piano performance, respectively — from what is now the University of North Texas. She stayed in Denton, where she and her late husband, L.A. Nelson, raised six children.
Nelson credited the women in Denton who pulled together with her and other civic leaders in laying the building blocks of Denton’s civic foundations: the Greater Denton Arts Council, the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival, the community theater, and child care and education programs for children of low-income families.
In addition to playing piano, Nelson cooked banquets and buffets for events and fundraisers. Over the years, she cooked for the Denton Chamber of Commerce when it hosted the Swedish owners of Tetra Pak during a visit. She cooked for Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus and novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry when they visited as speakers for the Friends of the UNT Libraries. She organized dinners that benefited the Tejas Storytelling Association. She was on the committee that published the Denton Woman’s Club Cookbook. Nelson published a recipe column — which she peppered with items about the many groups and activities she volunteered with — in the Denton Record-Chronicle for decades.
Nelson earned honors for her busy civic life. She was the co-chairwoman of UNT homecoming in 1985. She and her husband were recipients of the UNT Ulyss Knight Spirit Award. Nelson also was the chairwoman of the UNT Gaylord-Hughes Committee.
Capps said her dear friend took pains to meet people who moved to town.
“I actually knew Martha Len from the time I was in college,” she said. “We met through Mu Phi Epsilon, a music fraternity at UNT. Martha Len was a member of Mu Phi Epsilon for 72 years. ... You know how we talk about people having circles? Martha Len is one of those people, but I called her Miss Amoeba. Her circles reached out to so many different places.”
Capps said Nelson had an appetite for being on the go and connected with people wherever they traveled.
“We traveled many, many places," Capps said. “We traveled to see opera, we went on fall foliage tours, we took an Alaska cruise. She and I went to the St. Louis Opera because there were two UNT students who were performing. Before we went, Martha Len said, ‘You know, I have a cousin who lives close to St. Louis.’ She conjured up the phone number — her name was Starr — she met us there. We went to the national storytelling festival in Tennessee. We took a side trip to this little farm that is now a museum. She met someone there and realized they were distant cousins.”
When she wasn’t cooking or sorting Denton residents into the circles where they would flex their talent and skill, Nelson found time for music. She was the original accompanist for “A Slice of Texas Toast,” a fundraising troupe that traded in parodies crafted by its founder and local writer Donna Trammell. In a Facebook post, Trammell described Nelson as the kind of person who changes lives.
“Martha Len was a Denton original,” Trammell wrote. “This world will not be the same without her.”
“It’s kind of like when [beloved Denton pianist] Bob Rogers died,” Capps said. "There’s just this void. People like that don’t come along very often. She fed us, led us, supported us and came along side us. She always had our back.”
Nelson was a longtime patron of Denton Community Theatre and was a longtime member of the Ariel Club, a Denton women’s club that promotes literature, music, art and other special interests.
The benefit league was a feather in Nelson’s cap. Since its inception, the nonprofit has given about $5.5 million to Denton County nonprofits. In an interview in 2018 about a special league event honoring her, Nelson said she had a hard time wrapping her head around the league’s fundraising achievements. She also credited founding member Maurine Floyd for her vision and work.
“You couldn’t have told me the league would give away that much money,” Nelson said then. “I couldn’t have imagined that amount.”
A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. Friday at Denton Bible Church. A reception will follow. Arrangements are through Bill DeBerry Funeral Directors.