David Nasby committed his life to helping the less fortunate — from his days as the head of a small alternative school in south Minneapolis to his work as an executive at the General Mills Foundation, which dispensed millions of dollars in philanthropic donations.
A devout Lutheran, Nasby bridged the world between corporate leaders and some of the state’s most prominent activists, and somehow won the trust of both. This was reflected at his funeral last week at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, where a diverse crowd of about 200 turned out. David Tiede, retired seminary president, described Nasby as “a champion of social justice” and American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Clyde Bellecourt sang an honor song in Ojibwe.
Nasby, 78, of Minneapolis, was in declining health and died in his sleep on Nov. 5, said his wife, Karen, a retired Hennepin County public defender.
Nasby retired in 2004 after 25 years as director of community affairs and vice president of the General Mills Foundation, using his influence to help funnel major contributions to a large range of social programs.
“Activists very often express themselves strongly,” said Reatha Clark King, former president and chairwoman of the General Mills Foundation board. “We didn’t run from them when they showed their anger. Instead we listened, and David was the best of listeners, and he could hear what people were saying.”
Bellecourt said Nasby “fell in love” with AIM and funded many programs the group supported, including Indian youth canoe trips on the Mississippi River and the Legal Rights Center. “He walked in Jesus Christ’s footsteps, but he also walked in Native Americans’ footsteps,” said Bellecourt. “When I asked him for help, I didn’t have to ask him twice. He knew what we needed.”
Spike Moss, a longtime Minneapolis civil rights activist, said Nasby saw to it that the foundation underwrote the Leo Johnson Drum Corps, helping to pay the cost of drums and uniforms, hotel rooms and travel costs for 150 youths who performed across the country. He said Nasby also raised money to fund the completion of the first Martin Luther King Memorial building in Atlanta after Moss told him of major financial problems. “Most people didn’t know that Dave Nasby got it finished,” Moss said.
Nasby was born in Chicago, the son of a Lutheran minister. He graduated from Luther North High School, and went to St. Olaf College in Northfield where he met and married Karen. He graduated from St. Olaf in 1963, and Luther Seminary in 1966.
The couple spent two years together working for the Peace Corps in the Philippines. He was hired as executive director of The City, a drop-in center and alternative school in Minneapolis, and persuaded Minneapolis Public Schools to accredit the classes. Many of the students were dropouts or had juvenile records, and the school helped many of them get a high school diploma.
“He was just a dynamic spirit,” recalled Gary Brisbin, who taught there with his wife, Gail. “Everybody, the students and the staff, felt like they belonged.”
Later, at General Mills, he oversaw grants to a variety of organizations, among them the Penumbra Theatre, which focuses on African-American plays. One of his favorite projects, Clark King said, was a $200,000 grant to the National Council of Churches in the 1990s to help rebuild churches that had been burned down in three Southern states by arsonists.
“David had faith in people and he lived his faith,” said Clark King. “He had an ability to relate to people from the most down-and-out to the highest level of power in society.”
Nasby also chaired the board of Luther Seminary.
The Nasbys had a cabin along Lake Superior that he invited his activists friends to visit, among them Sharif Willis, who used his gang affiliations to try to end local street violence through a group called United for Peace, which Nasby supported. The group collapsed after the murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf in 1992. Willis wound up serving 25 years in federal prison for an unrelated crime.
“He came to visit me in every [prison] facility I was at,” said Willis. “He would always have something that was hilarious and raised my spirits. ... He was kind and considerate and he wanted the best for humanity.”
In addition to his wife, Nasby is survived by a son, Teodoro, of Falcon Heights, and a daughter Sergia Hay, of Tacoma, Wash.