Jeffrey W. Nelson’s life was one of service, from his work as a city administrator to his covert operations as a Green Beret officer.
Nelson, of Niceville, Fla., and formerly of Minnetonka, died April 21 on his 67th birthday of a rare skin cancer. An Irish wake will be held Sunday in St. Louis Park.
A retired Army colonel, he served from 1967 to 1999, mostly in Special Forces. Nelson was posthumously inducted into the Army Officer Candidate School of Fame in Columbus, Ga.
He worked decades ago as city administrator in Minnetrista and Mounds View, but the Army was his first love, said his wife, Carole Nelson.
Jeffrey Nelson served five years in combat, including in Vietnam, El Salvador and Bosnia, and in support roles for both Gulf wars. In the Army Reserves for more than 30 years, he was activated for many conflicts.
“There wasn’t much that happened between Vietnam and today that he wasn’t involved with,” said friend Ron Berry, of St. Louis Park. “He was involved in El Salvador, Bosnia, Iraq, and spent three years in Afghanistan.”
Nelson’s work ranged from combat engineer to battalion commander to top-secret missions. In recent years, he ran seminars for the Defense Department’s Special Operations Command.
“He was just an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things,” Berry said. “He did it very quietly and humbly.”
After retiring, Nelson worked with the military as a consultant specializing in psychological operations and civil affairs overseas, said daughter Megan Effertz.
“He had such a deep-seated, strong belief in always doing the right thing,” she said.
Born in St. Paul, he moved at age 10 to St. Louis Park, where he and Berry became inseparable friends at Aquila Elementary School.
In high school, they camped in Superior National Forest, living off the land. As juniors, they introduced a resolution in the Youth in Government program, asking the government to curtail logging and mining to preserve the wilderness. Their measure was cited in 1964 legislation establishing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“We were pretty proud of that,” Berry said.
At 17, the two earned private pilot’s licenses. Nelson also set a state record for the butterfly stroke in high school swimming. Navy frogmen taught him to scuba dive at school, and he joined Hennepin County’s Cold Water Rescue Team as a teen.
In 1967, Nelson was drafted for the Vietnam War. Home on leave after Army officer training, he met Carole Thompson, of Richfield, on a blind date, she said. They married six months later.
Then, with airborne and infantry training, Nelson covertly trained guerrilla fighters on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia.
He later earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota and an MBA at Minnesota State University, Mankato. His extensive military education included U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, where he also taught.
By the late 1970s, he was Minnetrista’s city administrator, pushing for green space and big lots. He held a similar position in Mounds View and worked for private firms in the military industry before returning to duty.
His family lived in Panama from 1982 through 1985 while Nelson served in El Salvador and Ecuador.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, he was a nonmilitary adviser. He was a liaison in former Soviet Union nations north of Afghanistan, too, as they rebuilt infrastructure.
“He touched and influenced many lives around the world, from the poor and impoverished to the leaders of countries, in almost every continent,” Effertz said.
In addition to his wife, Carole, and their daughter, survivors include a son, Ryan Nelson, and three siblings: Tim Pratt, Cindy Thayer and Sue Beckstrand.
The wake will be from 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Cooper Irish Pub, 1607 Park Place Blvd., St. Louis Park.