From capitalist entrepreneur to advocate of workers cooperatives, from political conservative to supporter of Nicaragua's radical Sandinistas, from military hawk to antiwar dove, Harold Nielsen underwent an extraordinary transformation over his 97 years.
Nielsen, who died Nov. 11, leaving behind his Winds of Peace Foundation, was no ordinary businessman, according to friends, family and associates. They describe how the Kenyon, Minn., manufacturer of molded seating for fast-food restaurants experienced a life-changing 1983 vacation to Mexico at the encouragement of his wife, Louise, a quiet social activist.
Nielsen was visiting a ramshackle tin shack in a slum near some railroad tracks in Cuernavaca, 30 miles south of Mexico City, when a naked little boy rushed up, wrapped his arms around Nielsen's leg and gave him a big, friendly smile. That night, Nielsen, by his own account, woke up and wept.
"The intense poverty he was seeing dawned on him," says Steve Sheppard, who was the human resources official at his factory and now heads the foundation. "He came to the realization that kids were living like this and it was not right."
Marvin Nielsen watched his father change. "When I grew up, I was a flaming liberal and he was a Reagan Republican," he recalls. "He became more liberal than I was."
Influenced by worker-owned cooperatives that he visited in Nicaragua, Harold Nielsen sold his firm, Foldcraft Co., to his employees as part of an employee stock ownership plan. He used the $12 million from the sale to start the foundation, which provides small-scale "microloans" and grants in Nicaragua. The foundation focuses on promoting women's rights and education for women, indigenous populations and the rural poor.
On his trips to Latin America, sponsored by the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College, he became critical of President Reagan's policies in Central America, said Joel Mugge, who founded the center.
Nielsen urged his employees to take one- or two-week visits to Third World countries, sponsored by the center and paid for by the company, asking only that they hold a brown bag lunch and tell co-workers about their trip on their return.
The firm, which had just under 300 employees when he left it in 1992, now has 328 employees in three states and will have revenue this year of $55 million, said Sheppard.
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas, said that on three separate occasions, Nielsen donated $5,000 to help pay for trips to send students to El Salvador to attend commemorations of the slaying of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero, a critic of U.S. aid to El Salvador's military regime, was assassinated in 1980.
Nielsen donated a $10,000 matching grant two years ago to help start the Minnesota Arms Spending Alternatives Project, which aims to shift federal spending from military programs to social programs.
In Kenyon, Nielsen opened a thrift store called Third World Friends, using it to collect clothing and raise funds that were sent off to Nicaragua and other poor countries.
"He lived a life worth noting because of all the good he did," says Steve Swanson, a retired St. Olaf College professor who wrote a self-published book, "One Couple's Gift," about Nielsen and his wife. Louise Nielsen died in 2011.
Nielsen is survived by a daughter, Rosalind Bonsett, of Beverly Hills, Fla., and sons Marvin, of Bordentown, N.J., and Stephen Nielsen, of Wanamingo, Minn. Services have been held.