Over 37 years, Ronald Nelson created a robust and respected music program at Westwood Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park, enhancing worship services and involving thousands of kids and adults in choirs and musical productions.
At his Saturday morning choral school for elementary through high school-age students, Nelson taught how to sing, chant the liturgy and play the organ and piano. He gave free lessons to those who could not pay, and he invited students to perform during church services.
Choral school graduates were proud to say they were one of “Ronnie’s Kids,” said Westwood’s senior pastor, the Rev. Tania Haber. Many were inspired to pursue musical careers.
“He was extremely gifted to take a kid like me and get me to sing beautifully,” said Mary Kay Hauer, who was in Nelson’s choirs and ensembles in the 1960s and 1970s. “He was a giving, caring and talented man. As kids, we wanted to be there. You wanted to be in choir. You missed out if you were not in choir. He’s probably directing a choir in heaven.”
Nelson was in San Diego celebrating his 63rd wedding anniversary with his wife, Betty Lou, when he fell and broke his hip. He died April 18 at Scripps Mercy Hospital of complications from the fall. He was 86.
Born in Rockford, Ill., Nelson was introduced to music by his parents. He learned to play the piano and he sang in a boys’ choir. Nelson was the first in his family to attend college, graduating summa cum laude from St. Olaf College in Northfield in 1949 with a degree in music.
He taught public school music in Rockford until he was called to be the music minister at Westwood in 1955. That was his “dream job,” said daughter Rachel Nelson, of Two Harbors, Minn.
He arrived at the start-up suburban church at 9001 Cedar Lake Road with a vision, Haber said, and carried it out over the course of three decades. He retired in 1992. At its peak, Westwood had nine choirs and a resident orchestra, all directed by Nelson. Ensembles and soloists performed anthems and oratorios that Nelson composed. They chanted liturgies, some of which are included in the green Lutheran Book of Worship used in ELCA congregations nationwide.
He could often be found sitting at a piano sketching out his next composition. One, “Whoever Would Be Great Among You Must Become Your Servant,” will be played at his memorial service Friday, his daughter said.
“He always had a tune in his head,” she said. “He enhanced worship with music.”
As another outlet for his singers, Nelson staged yearly musicals such as “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music” at Westwood. Nelson also helped direct musicals at nearby St. Louis Park High School.
Nelson’s legacy is that he helped shape people’s understanding of music and the church and the community, Haber said. He also made Westwood a welcoming place for the LGBT community.
“I owe him such a huge debt of gratitude for the music he taught me, for all his encouragement and support, and for the example of Christian faith he offered us all,” the Rev. Tom Zarth of Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield wrote in a church newsletter. “To say that much of who I am is due to Ronnie’s influence is not an exaggeration. … I’m glad to count myself as one of his ‘kids.’ ”
A mass choir composed of Nelson’s former students will sing at his memorial service at 3 p.m. Friday. A prelude at 2:30 p.m. will feature a procession of organists who studied under him.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Nelson is survived by sons Peter, of Omaha, Neb., and Paul, of Minneapolis, and one grandson.