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If Glen Nelson was not the founding father of the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, he was at least a founding brother.
In 1945, fresh from a tank in Patton's army, Nelson decided to become a veterinarian. But first he needed a place to learn how. So the 25-year-old Nelson and a handful of other World War II warriors asked their state legislators to fund a college of veterinary medicine.
That began a two-year struggle that saw the small group of ex-soldiers defy the opposition of powerful university administrators and politicians. At one point, Nelson and his pals demonstrated on the steps of the State Capitol wearing their combat medals. When the battle ended in April 1947, the veterans had a veterinary school to attend.
"If not for their efforts, there might not be a vet school at the University of Minnesota," said Dr. Tom Hagerty, who lobbies the Legislature for the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, where Nelson served 19 years as executive director.
Nelson, who graduated with the vet school's first class in 1951, died Sept. 29. He was 88.
He grew up fast in the war. "His level of maturity as a young man was a lot more than mine," said Jim Collins, who directs the lab where Nelson worked for decades. Lobbying skills served Nelson and his alma mater.
"He was very personable and well liked by the staff he supervised," Collins noted. "And he always had an eye out for ways to get money for the lab or money for the school. He was very thoughtful politically."
Many in academics would rather theorize than sweet talk legislators. But Nelson loved to lobby, said former colleague Dr. Pat O'Leary. "He liked to quote Hubert Humphrey that politics was the art of the possible. He was persona grata in the halls of the Legislature."
Nelson's frequent trips to the Capitol in St. Paul made him the public face of the vet school. The rest of him was equally hard to miss. He stood more than 6 feet tall and weighed well over 200 pounds. But he didn't use his size to intimidate. "He was a very engaging speaker," said Hagerty, "He was very self-assured."
Part of his confidence came from his days maneuvering tanks. Nelson, who grew up in Brainerd, joined the National Guard in 1938 at age 17. His outfit deployed to the Philippines. Nelson returned to the U.S. to attend officer candidate school and later deployed to Patton's army to fight in Europe.
He followed graduation from veterinary school with a stint in the Korean War and private practice. In 1961 he joined the faculty of the veterinary school he helped create and stayed there until he retired in 1992.
Preceded in death by his wife, Mary; daughters Mary and Greta; and his sister, Alice, Nelson is survived by sons James and Jay and grandchildren James, Amanda, Jamie and Dessiah.
Jim Spencer • 612-673-4029