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Memorial Re-Dedication Will Honor Santa Barbara Student Struck by Car in 1970

Community fought for pedestrian-safety improvements after death of Monroe Elementary School student Curtis 'Chipper' Nelson

The original plaque at Monroe Elementary School in Santa Barbara. A new tree and plaque has been installed on the campus in memory of Curtis “Chipper” Nelson and a ceremony will be held Thursday. Click to view larger
The original plaque at Monroe Elementary School in Santa Barbara. A new tree and plaque has been installed on the campus in memory of Curtis “Chipper” Nelson and a ceremony will be held Thursday.  (Contributed photo)

On Jan. 21, 1970, Curtis “Chipper” Nelson was crossing the intersection of Cliff and Flora Vista drives on the Mesa in Santa Barbara when he was struck by a car and killed.

The Monroe Elementary School student was just one month shy of his 12th birthday. 

Following Nelson’s death, the students and faculty created a memorial to honor the 11-year-old by planting a tree and a marble plaque engraved with his name in an area overlooking the school playground.

Weather damage and time took their toll on both, causing the redwood tree to die and the plaque to become unreadable.

Nearly 47 years after that tragic day, the community will pay tribute and gather for a rededication in Nelson’s memory, with a new tree planted at the site. 

The free ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. Thursday at Monroe Elementary, 431 Flora Vista Dr.

If it is raining on Thursday, the event will be held inside the school library. 

The public is encouraged to attend, former Monroe Elementary student David Gonzales said.

Curtis “Chipper” Nelson Click to view larger
Curtis “Chipper” Nelson (Nelson family photo)

“His death greatly impacted the Mesa community and his classmates greatly,” Gonzales said. “When he died, we were all young. It was the first time many of us had experienced a death of someone we knew.”

Gonzales, a retired sergeant from the Santa Barbara Police Department and a direct descendant of the first comandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio, organized the event.

“Our goal is to maintain awareness of traffic safety, reminding the community of the tragedy years ago,” Gonzales said.

The accident occurred after school hours, in the late afternoon and after the crossing guard had left, he said.

Nelson's death sparked calls for pedestrian safety.

Students worked alongside their parents, school staff and locals to petition the state, as well as the city of Santa Barbara, to install traffic signals at that intersection.

“The successful campaign has undoubtedly made the area safer and protected pedestrians from the same fate as Chipper,” Gonzales said. "That area is safer because of the installation of traffic signals."

After the accident, stop signs were erected and traffic signals were installed where the crash took place, and on Mesa Lane, Gonzales said.

Gonzales described his classmate as a gentle soul and a child with a love of all things nature — especially sea life and shells.

Nelson’s death shocked the young children attending Monroe Elementary, and taught students a lesson about caring for everybody. 

“For such a young life, he touched a lot of people,” Gonzales said.

“People want to keep his memory alive because he taught us a lesson about respect and caring for others,” he said. 

Gonzales said has spoken with Nelson’s sister, who is living in Utah, and Nelson’s older brother, who might attend the ceremony.

Ben Hatcher with AllScape Design + Installation Inc., a local landscaping business, gifted the new tree and offered free installation. 

Additionally, funds were raised through a GoFundMe campaign

The extra money raised will be donated to Monroe Elementary in Nelson's name, Gonzales said. ​

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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