CWU News

CWU Alumnus, Trustee, Seattle Center Director to Give CWU Commencement Addresses

Robert Nellams“The women who raised me are my foundation and the pillars that hold me up start with my education at Central.”

Those aspects of his life will be among what Robert Nellams, director of the Seattle Center, will share with the Class of 2019 during his keynote remarks at CWU’s morning and afternoon commencement ceremonies at Tomlinson Stadium in Ellensburg.

Nellams, who earned his accounting degree from CWU in 1982, addresses graduates of the College of Arts and Humanities, College of the Sciences, and individual and interdisciplinary study majors during his morning address, which will be part of a ceremony that begins at 9:30 a.m. He will then present remarks to graduates of the College of Business and College of Education and Professional Studies during a second commencement that gets underway at 2:00 p.m.

“I’m going to tell the story of my journey, how it brought me to and through Central—what prepared me before I got there, what happened to me once I got there—and how that foundational piece and pillars of my upbringing and my education have propelled me throughout my life,” he said. “Then I’m going to try to sum up that journey with some lessons learned and share those with the students.”

After graduating from Seattle’s Franklin High School, Nellams enrolled at Bellevue Community College, where he earned his Associate in Business degree. He was also a two-year star for the school’s men’s basketball team during the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons. For his athletic success, in 2007 Nellams was inducted into the Northwest Athletic Conference Hall of Fame.

Transferring to CWU, he played for the Wildcats during the 1980-81 season, helping the team win the District 1 championship and advance to the 1981 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics 44th National Championship Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri.

But Nellams acknowledged that his main focus in school was on earning his Bachelor of Science in accounting from Central. About returning to his alma mater to address its newest graduates, Nellams said it is both an honor—and a bit scary.

“I speak in front of lots of people multiple times a year, but this is different,” he said. “Typically, I’m speaking about the place I work or about an organization I’m affiliated with. But this is making me get my arms around the tremendous impact that the university has had on my life.”

That impact would be evident throughout his three-decade career in public service, which began as an accountant for the City of Seattle, for which Nellams was hired immediately after graduating from CWU.

In the following years, he assumed a wide range of additional responsibilities, including budgeting,  community engagement, customer service, human resources, organizational development, and systems analysis.

It has led to his acknowledged keen understanding of the city’s business and its bureaucracy, which he successfully navigates with his noted charisma, self-deprecating humor, and well-earned reputation for effective decision-making and resourceful change management.

Nellams joined the Seattle Center in 1996 as its director of patron services. He was promoted to deputy director just 18 months later, and then served as interim director prior to his appointment as permanent director in 2006.

During his years there, he has worked closely with numerous organizations using the campus for arts, culture, sporting, and entertainment events, while directing a staff of 240 full-time employees and more than 650 temporary and seasonal staff.

Nellams has also led—and is now continuing to lead—sweeping changes at Seattle Center, including the Seattle Opera expansion and redevelopment of KeyArena.

Nellams is also vice-chair of the CWU Board of Trustees, having been appointed to a six-year term on the university’s governing board by Gov. Jay Inslee, which will continue through September 2021.

“One of my priorities is to continue to look at ways to build an ever-larger pipeline from my community to the excellent education and growth opportunities Central offers,” Nellams said. “My experience in Ellensburg is the foundation of my professional success and I would love to see more students from Washington get a similar opportunity.”

Nellams previously served as chair of the CWU Foundation Board. For many years, he also has been an active member of the Breakfast Group, a Seattle-based non-profit service organization devoted to mentoring African-American and other low-income and at-risk young men of color. As a current member of its board of directors, he currently chairs the organization’s fundraising committee. Nellams is also a former trustee of the Mount Zion Baptist Church.

More than 1,600 graduates are expected to hear his address and participate in this year’s 127th CWU commencement. Overall, an estimated 15,000 people are expected to attend the two events.

During the 2018-19 academic year, CWU will confer 2,745 bachelor’s and 322 master’s degrees.

Media contact: Robert Lowery, CWU Public Affairs, 509-963-1487,