Although he hadn't worn a badge in more than three decades, Richard "Dick" Nelson remained a champion for Minnesota's men and women in blue until he died April 27 from acute leukemia at the age of 85.
Born and raised in south Minneapolis, Nelson was the oldest son of Danish and Swedish immigrants. While in junior high, Nelson worked at a drug store soda fountain, where he met his future wife, Celia. They were married for 64 years; she died in 2008.
After graduating from South High School, Nelson was drafted into the Army. He served about a year and a half in Europe during World War II in the advanced infantry and military police before he was allowed to go home because his father had died and he had to take care of his family.
Nelson worked several jobs, including as a milkman for Franklin Creamery, before he found his calling and became a Minneapolis officer in 1950.
"My dad lived and breathed police and their families," said daughter Nannette Kaiser.
During his time on the force, Nelson served in a range of roles, including as a patrolman and ultimately as a detective lieutenant supervisor. He guarded President Kennedy during a presidential visit, and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey was a keynote speaker at Nelson's retirement party in 1976.
Nelson's dedication inspired others in his family to become cops. His family has 175 years combined law enforcement service. Even one of his grandsons plans to join the force.
"I looked up to my father and had great respect for him and realized" there isn't a more honorable job than to give to your community or a better way to honor him than by becoming an officer, said Nelson's son, Thomas, a former Inver Grove Heights officer.
During his life, Nelson led several organizations, including the Minneapolis Police Federation, the Minnesota Police Pension Council, the Minneapolis Police Relief Association and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. He also helped found the Law Enforcement Labor Services union.
"Dick Nelson was a great man. He worked his whole life to make cops' jobs and lives better," said John Delmonico, the current Police Federation president. "And every police officer in the state of Minnesota is better off because of the things Dick worked for."
Nelson fought hard for officers' pensions, benefits and working conditions, Delmonico said, representing police families at the Capitol.
"He retired from the job of being a police officer, [but] he no way retired working for the best interest of police officers," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
As a lobbyist, Nelson was optimistic and persistent, with a handshake "like a vise," said friend and fellow lobbyist Brian Rice. On occasion, Rice recalled, Nelson would follow people into the bathroom to continue to make a point.
Nelson also was a recovering alcoholic who often talked to people who needed help.
"That man literally saved hundreds of peoples' lives," Rice said.
Nelson is survived by his daughters, Kathleen Watkins and Nannette Kaiser, his son Thomas Nelson, his sisters Marge Oie, Phyllis Johnston and Linda Conroy, his brothers James Nelson and Robert Nelson and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His son David preceded him in death.
Services were held Wednesday.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495; Twitter: @stribnorfleet