Our Founder and History

Portrait of Craig H. NeilsenCraig H. Neilsen (1941-2006) was an American entrepreneur known for his attention to detail, uncompromising demand for excellence, and an ability to inspire those around him.  In his personal life, he became known for his generosity, leading by example with his charitable giving.  In 1985, a collision with a semi-truck left Craig with a severe spinal cord injury (SCI).  His life experience following his injury motivated him to improve the quality of life for other people living with SCI.  He established the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation in 2002 to pursue his philanthropic goals, devoting the same entrepreneurial spirit to the Foundation that made him so successful in business.

Craig journeyed through life with extraordinary focus and determination.  He was born in Logan, Utah, and grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he spent the majority of his adulthood.  He attended Utah State University, earning an undergraduate degree in political science and he received his MBA (1964) and JD (1967) from the University of Utah.  Craig’s early career spanned law and the construction and real estate development industries.

His accident in 1985 forced him to instantly transform his personal life and his business.  He was tetraplegic with only minimal function in his left hand and required around-the-clock nursing and assistance with daily activities for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, his tenacity and extraordinary focus fueled his determination to succeed.  In reflecting on his life following the accident shortly before his death, Craig recalled, “I was forced to engage and get some things accomplished because I had my family depending on me.  I think most people – when push comes to shove – take their hard knocks and then pick up the pieces and go on.”  Craig returned to business in 1986 after his rehabilitation and achieved exponentially greater success in his career after his injury than before.

In 1987, only two years after his accident, he engineered the buyout of two other shareholders to gain full control of two small, roadside casinos on the Nevada-Idaho border and proceeded to redevelop and expand the properties into a casino resort complex.  The combination of Craig’s drive and the relaxation of state gambling restrictions around the country a few years later, fueled the rapid expansion of his casino company, Ameristar Casinos, Inc., following its 1993 initial public offering.  Although many competitors sought to take advantage of the proliferation of gaming by developing basic facilities, Craig’s vision for Ameristar called for properties of architectural distinction with modern, spacious casino floors, a wide range of dining options, luxury hotel rooms and live entertainment.  Through his keen attention to detail, every property Ameristar developed and operated had to meet Craig’s exacting and continuously more demanding standards of excellence.  As a result, Ameristar achieved a market-leading position in each of its markets and continued to blaze new trails until Craig’s death in 2006.

Craig H. NelsonCraig’s charitable pursuits grew along with his company.  As he met other individuals with spinal cord injuries, he became inspired to begin funding small projects to help the SCI community.  He was dedicated to creating a future for individuals with SCI to live full and productive lives as active participants in their communities, like he was able to do.  But in his true entrepreneurial spirit, he wanted to go bigger.  He knew he could do more.

The wealth Craig generated in business gave him the financial opportunity to seed the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, which he founded in 2002 to help advance spinal cord injury causes.  Craig’s estate plan positioned the Foundation to grow as rapidly as Ameristar did.  The Foundation received an approximately $470 million endowment from the sale of Ameristar stock in 2011 and promptly ramped up its strategic planning, staffing and grant making to achieve Craig’s objectives.  The Foundation has grown to become the largest private funder of SCI research, rehabilitation, clinical training, and programmatic support in the United States and Canada.

Craig and Ray NeilsenDue to Craig’s leadership and generosity, the Foundation’s work has both breadth and depth and plays a key role in fostering advancement on many fronts of the SCI field.  Initial funding focused on basic research, student scholarships, and support for nonprofits providing services for individuals living with spinal cord injuries, with each of these programs expanding with the increase in the Foundation’s financial resources.  Today, the Foundation also focuses on support for identified gaps in service, training the next generation of SCI physicians, and research to address the psychosocial impacts of spinal cord injuries.  Although the Foundation does not normally invest in capital projects, it was the lead donor for the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital at the University of Utah, Craig’s alma mater. The hospital opened its doors in June 2020 serving the Mountain West region with a modern and innovative facility.

In the words of his son, Ray Neilsen, “Though my dad’s lifestyle had been altered considerably after his accident, his ambition intensified.  For the next two decades, his vision, entrepreneurial spirit, and inexhaustible passion only escalated.”

Craig lived a full and prosperous life post-injury, one that exceeded all expectations.  The Craig H. Neilsen Foundation brings his spirit of resiliency and drive for greatness to everything the Foundation touches to improve the lives of those affected by SCI.