SUSIE NELSON'S OTHER SON
Source: The Daily Dispatch
by Al Wheless
It took some people longer than others Monday
afternoon to recognize a widely familiar face in the
local library. Peter Coyote was the man with graying
hair and a gold earring, the man who climbed the
winding stairs inside the H. Leslie Perry Memorial
Library to do research in the Local History Room.
Coyote is working on a nonfiction book featuring
Susie Nelson, an 80-year-old Henderson resident, as
one of its main characters.
Coyote, of Jewish descent, said the African-
American Henderson native "raised me from the time I
was 3 until I was 13. For all practical purposes,
she was my mother."
Before coming to the library at Chestnut and
Breckenridge streets, Coyote had already spent
several days interviewing Nelson in her brick home
on Center Street. It's in the small community known
to some as Mobile, just outside Henderson's city
limits. Early Sunday afternoon, Coyote went to The
Silo restaurant for brunch with Nelson and her
nieces and nephews.
"Susie introduces me to people as her son," he said.
"She has a great son named Bill Nelson. I'm another
The author, who is 66, said Susie Nelson was 17 when
she left her home in Vance County and moved to New
Jersey. After briefly doing parttime housework for
Coyote's aunt in Paterson, N.J., Nelson came to
Englewood in the spring of 1945 to help his family
full-time while his mother was ill. Coyote's mother
did recover, but Nelson was in the boy's life for a
decade. Coyote was 3 1/2 when he met Nelson.
"In short order, she just ran the place," he
recalled. "My parents (Ruth and Morris Cohon) were
unusual people who had no racism in their home, and
it became Susie's house." Coyote said he and his
younger sister, Elizabeth, were very attached to
Susie "because she did everything for us. When she
said 'jump,' we jumped."
Susie had lots of friends who often dropped by,
according to Coyote.
"I grew up listening to black people talking about
white people, and white people talking about black
people," he said.
Nelson and her husband, Ozzie, held their wedding at
the Cohon house, and lived with the family for a
year thereafter. When he became an adult, "I felt I
was half black and half white inside," Coyote said.
He described trying to reconcile his two sides at a
time "when other blacks and whites weren't getting
along out in the world." It wasn't until he
was in his 40s that both parts of Coyote were able
to peacefully coexist.
He is writing a book about himself and his
stepmother "in this moment when Barack Obama is
running for president. The whole issue of race is
wide-open right now." Obama was born to a
white mother and a black father, Coyote noted.
"People are trying to determine if he is too black
or not black enough."
Coyote accused the media of "stirring up
controversy" about remarks made by Obama's pastor,
Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "He is the smartest man I ever
heard speak on TV," Coyote said of Wright. "So I
thought it would be a good time to write this story.
I started about a month ago."
The actor plans to write 12 chapters before
finishing the book within the next year. Three of
the titles will be:
• "If You Think There Is A
War On Drugs, You Don't Understand The Situation."
• "If You Think We Love Our Children As A Culture,
You Don't Know The Facts."
• "If You Think Your Government Is There To Serve
You, You've Got It Wrong."
His book is intended to show "how things really
work." He wasn't able to get as much research done
in the library as he wanted to, Coyote said, because
it didn't open until noon on Monday.
"You don't have enough funds to keep the library
operating all day," he noted. His self-imposed
mission was to gather information on North Carolina,
such as its geology, plants and trees. One of the
sources on Vance County that he examined was "Zeb's
Coyote, who lives in Marin County in California, was
on his way before 2 p.m. on Monday to perform with
the Greensboro Symphony. The guest conductor was his
friend, Dimitri Sitkovetsky, a well-known violinist
and conductor in London.
Interviewed by phone while he was on the road,
Coyote was asked what he thought of Henderson.
"It's a lovely town that has fallen on hard times,"
he said. When tobacco and cotton faded away, people
didn't expect factory jobs to go to Indonesia,
Coyote added. "Henderson feels like a real nice
place that is struggling to stay above rising
Nelson was contacted after Coyote left Vance.
"What you saw is exactly the way he's been since he
was a kid," she said of the man whose words are
rarely minced. "He has never changed." While the
demeanor of her second "son" is very direct, Nelson
conceded, "He is a very gentle man and is very fair.
I raised him that way."
Coyote Web Site ]