When a British conglomerate launched a surprise attempt in March 1990 to take over Norton Co., a century-old abrasives firm in Worcester, John M. Nelson knew it was time to fight.
As chairman of Norton, Mr. Nelson barely slept in the month that followed. He told his family it was highly unlikely he would keep his job, but if he gave up, the company had no chance of survival.
He thwarted the hostile takeover by arranging a merger with a French company, Compagnie de Saint-Gobain. “I feel like a condemned prisoner who received an 11th-hour pardon,” he told the Globe in April 1990, after the merger was announced.
The chairman position disappeared, however. In September 1990, the company announced that as a result of discussions between Mr. Nelson and the chairman of Compagnie de Saint-Gobain, Mr. Nelson would leave. Nevertheless, “he was proud that he got the best possible deal he could get, and he was determined to get that deal,” said his wife, Linda.
Mr. Nelson, a longtime Worcester business executive who also formerly served as chairman of TJX Cos. in Framingham, died of complications of congestive heart failure Jan. 21 in Winter Park Memorial Hospital in Winter Park, Fla. He was 81 and lived in Winter Park.
In a statement, Bernard Cammarata, current chairman of TJX, praised his predecessor’s “great business acumen,” and added that Mr. Nelson “had a steadiness about him and a special way of making those around him feel comfortable.”
Mr. Nelson had joined Norton Co. as a sales trainee after graduate school, and rose through the ranks to become chairman.
After leaving Norton, Mr. Nelson was appointed chairman and chief executive of Wyman-Gordon, the second-largest manufacturer in Worcester after Norton. He stepped down as chief executive in 1994, but remained as chairman until 1997.
From 1995 to 1999, Mr. Nelson served as board chairman of TJX Cos. During that time, TJX acquired Marshalls and expanded its operations in Europe.
His son, Christopher of Worcester, said that along with being a highly motivated businessman, Mr. Nelson was a nurturing and sensitive father.
Christopher, who is a social worker, said that he teaches men how to be good fathers and that his father is part of the reason why he wanted to go into this field.
“He lived his life in such a way that you can only admire,” Christopher said.
Born in New York City, John Martin Nelson grew up in New Jersey, where he graduated from Ridgewood High School. His aptitude for leadership was apparent early, as he was president of his class from seventh grade until his senior year in high school.
He graduated in 1953 from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and served as a lieutenant in the US Navy for three years.
In 1959, Mr. Nelson graduated from Harvard Business School with a master’s in business administration.
While at Harvard, his family said that Mr. Nelson started a small business with friends, delivering sandwiches to other students. His family said his business partners included Ralph Sorenson, who became president of Babson College, and James Wolfensohn, who later served as president of the World Bank.
Mr. Nelson’s first marriage, to Ann Cook, ended in divorce.
Through the years, his family said, he was a founder and chairman of Commonwealth National Bank in Worcester and served on the boards of numerous organizations and institutions, among them the Worcester-based Chamber of Commerce, the area’s United Way campaign, the Worcester Art Museum, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
He also served on the boards or as a trustee for the Worcester Foundation for Biomedical Research, the UMass Memorial Medical Center’s foundation, the Hoche-
Scofield Foundation, and the Fairlawn Foundation.
In 1988, Wesleyan presented Mr. Nelson with its Distinguished Alumni Award, and in 1999 he was named citizen of the year in Worcester.
Mr. Nelson’s international travel ranged from dog sledding in Alaska to a cooking school in France and included journeys to Africa, Brazil, India, and Vietnam.
Mr. Nelson met Linda Crocker in 1989, and they married in August 1992.
She said he proposed by taking out a half-page advertisement in her local newspaper, which addressed her with the phrase “will you marry me” in several languages. She spent hours trying to understand the message, finally realizing it was a proposal.
“He was determined to win me over,” she said.
Mr. Nelson’s wife said that at the time, she lived across the country.
The day the advertisement ran in the paper, Mr. Nelson flew in for a visit.
“I was standing there when he got off the plane, holding the article,” she said. “And I just grabbed him and said yes.”
A service has been held for Mr. Nelson, who in addition to his wife and son leaves a daughter, Murrey of San Francisco; two step-daughters, Michelle Moore of Boulder, Colo., and Shannon Moore of Winter Park, Fla.; and six grandchildren.
“I consider it an honor and a privilege to be his son, and I mean that,” his son said. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be seen and known as the son of John Nelson.”