Don Nelson Tribute Helen Davis

Helen Davis, a co-founder of the Winona Film Society, shares her memories about Don Nelson and the early days of the organization at the opening of their Fall film season at the Winona Arts Center on October 1st. 

By Steve Bachler, Winona Arts Center Board president


It was like the ending scene of a film classic, where the director pans across the crowded room, focusing on the faces of people sharing stories of the film's departed hero. Through tears and laughter, they remember their friend and how each of their lives was changed for the better because of knowing him. Fade to black. That was the scene at the Winona Arts Center (WAC) on October 1 where friends of Don Nelson gathered to pay tribute to the man who, though he died in May 2020, continues to inspire the belief in the power of community and in working together to solve problems. The tribute was the lead up to the Winona Film Society's opening film of their 37th season, an award-winning film from China with a very fitting title,“The Farewell.”

Standing on the stage, friends shared their favorite "Don Stories" to a large audience gathered at the newly remodeled Winona Arts Center. They recounted the history of the Winona Film Society. In 1984, "The Screening Room," a small downtown movie theater that featured independent and foreign-made films (the kind you had to drive to big city movie houses to see) announced that it was closing. Upon learning this news, Don heard the call “action!" and entered the scene to help save the theater and the important contribution it made to the town. He, along with others, formed a nonprofit organization, channeling community members' interest in independent films into a volunteer-run, consensus-building association, the Winona Film Society (WFS). When the WFS was forced to vacate the building two years later, they found a welcome mat at the Winona Arts Center (WAC), bringing their 16-millimeter projectors, chairs, and a huge popcorn maker to the town's Home for the Arts. As many will remember, Don would always introduce the films and begin with this greeting, "Hello, I'm Don and I'll be your projectionist tonight." In the 35 years since arriving at WAC much has changed with projection technology (films are now streamed and digitally projected) but the love of experiencing a well told story projected onto a big screen in a darkened theater surrounded by friends and neighbors remains. Don saved that for us. Therefore, the board of directors has proclaimed that whenever a film is screened at the Winona Arts Center, the space is to be called, “The Don Nelson Screening Room.” Thank you, Don. 

The next Winona Film Society movie will be “Glory”(Bulgarian with subtitles, 101 minutes) this Friday, Oct. 16, and Saturday, Oct. 17, at 7 p.m. in The Don Nelson Screening Room. The WAC Coffeehouse will open at 6 p.m. WAC is located at 228 East Fifth Street. For learn more about our programs — including the current exhibit, “Art In the Time of Covid” — and our new accessible-to-all entrance, please visit our website at