Honoring President Carter: Q & A with Oz Nelson

President Carter at CDC

Kent C. “Oz” Nelson is the retired chairman and CEO (1989-96) of United Parcel Service, where he worked for 43 years. He has served on the Board of Trustees of the Carter Center since the early 1990s and now chairs its Board. He also served as chair of the CDC Foundation Board of Directors from 2001-2005. Oz became involved with The Carter Center and the CDC Foundation because of his strong personal interest in making the world a healthier and fairer place for future generations.

In your opinion, what makes President Jimmy Carter a “hero?”

At 88, President Carter has worked longer post-presidency than any other American president. He launched The Carter Center in 1982 with his wife, Rosalynn, a year after leaving the White House. The Carter Center became his second career, and much of the work of the Center is about improving public health, effectively changing the health of millions of people. I don’t know what’s more heroic than that.

The thing about President Carter is that he can be a hero to all sorts of people and in a bipartisan way. He’s so pure in intent, helping make things fair and giving people a healthier life. His work through The Carter Center has spanned from advancing efforts to improve mental health care and diminish the stigma associated with it, to disease eradication, to monitoring elections, to help establish and strengthen democracies, and speaking up for individual human rights.
I have always been struck by how he constantly tries to find ways to help people who have little, have more. He’s an example for the rest of the world, and he’s tireless in his efforts. I’ve told him that he’s the closest thing to a saint that I have ever known.
And, throughout all this, he remains the same person he has always been. He attends church and even teaches Sunday school most Sundays. He’s a talented writer and painter and an excellent furniture maker. He’s a bird watcher and loves to sport fish… He is truly an amazing man.

When did you first meet President Carter?

In 1991, when I was chairman and CEO of UPS, we moved our corporate headquarters from Greenwich, Connecticut, to Atlanta. A few days after making the announcement of our move to Georgia, I get a call. I pick up the phone and hear, “Hi, this is Jimmy Carter.”
He told me he was calling to welcome me to Georgia, and asked me if he could come say hello to our employees and answer any questions we had about the state. He said he was thrilled we chose to move our headquarters to Georgia and he wanted to help make us feel a little more at home.
The day he was able to visit, I unfortunately was in California filling a long standing-speaking commitment, so he met with the executive team in my absence. When I got back, I walked into an office full of 14 mostly Republican senior VPs, and they just gushed about his visit. They told me how much they enjoyed meeting him and how appreciative they were that he came to see them. They liked what he had to say and were very impressed with the goal of The Carter Center. They thought UPS’s experience working with disadvantaged kids could be helpful to The Carters Center's Atlanta Project. (The Atlanta Project was a five-year initiative, launched in 1991, to address poverty in the city.)
I’ve had an opportunity to get to know President Carter even better since I was elected chair of the board at The Carter Center in 2009. He goes about his work in a way that is thoughtful and driven. And, he’s going all the time. I’m about 13 years younger than him and I cannot keep up. It’s amazing how, at the drop of a hat, at 88 years old, he’s on a plane to Egypt or China – even North Korea.

What have been President Carter’s major strengths in furthering his humanitarian work, especially in public health?

First and foremost, President Carter brings credibility to a situation. He’s not out there to promote his name or get accolades. He’s out there to make things better, and he’s got a track record to prove that The Carter Center can do it.
He has proven that a simple water pipe – that you wear around your neck and suck water through to filter as you drink – can protect people from a disease like Guinea worm. Cases of Guinea worm have been reduced by more than 99 percent from 3.5 million in 1986 to fewer than 1,100 today, making it likely to be the first disease since smallpox to be eradicated.
In addition to being a credible player in the world of public health, President Carter has made significant strides as a great relationship builder. He’s a relatable person. He’s honest and real. It’s amazing to watch people react to him due, I think, to the sincerity he shows. When Jimmy says something, people listen. One time, I saw him get choked up delivering an address to an organization. He was so appreciative of their work that he became overwhelmed with the feeling that they were doing so much to help people have a better life.
Jimmy also gives lots of credit to others. He has built partnerships internationally, with governments and ministries of health, to strengthen health care systems in some of the poorest nations. If you start looking at the list of who President Carter has partnered with, you’d see foundations, corporations, civic groups, individuals, governments – CDC, CDC Foundation, and the Gates Foundation, to name a few.
Jimmy Carter recognizes value in the work other organizations are doing too. One of The Carter Center’s guiding principles is to not duplicate the effective efforts of others. As a policy, President Carter works on serious problems that need serious attention. He doesn’t step on other people’s toes. That’s important in the world of public health and governments.
It’s been a pleasure to work with President Carter over the years.  I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next.

In Photo: Charles Stokes, President and CEO, CDC Foundation; Gary Cohen, CDC Foundation Board Chair; President Jimmy Carter; Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC Director; Oz Nelson, Former UPS CEO and CDC Foundation Board (photo by Caroline Joe)

Mila Rossi is a communications officer for the CDC Foundation.