In the late 1960s, the Viet Cong had dug in along the shore of the Mekong River and were firing heavy-caliber shells at a U.S. cargo boat.
Then, boom! Flames shot up from the boat’s deck.
On a gunboat behind the cargo boat was KSTP-TV photojournalist Levi “Skip” Nelson, poised with his camera as the gunboat strafed the shore and then sailed to the disabled cargo ship.
“Skip jumped aboard the ship and was shooting all he could of the last flames before they put them out,” said Bob Ryan, a retired anchorman who worked with Nelson, including twice in Vietnam. “He was first on the scene, and nothing bothered him. He had tremendous courage.”
Nelson, a pioneer in news and NFL films, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on Oct. 9. The Arden Hills resident was 83.
When he was a student at St. Paul’s Mechanic Arts High School, Nelson hung around KSTP on University Avenue, making himself indispensable to the one-man photo staff. He was hired in 1948 and worked there for the next 50 years, retiring as director of photography.
“The guy was just a terrific human being and a real photojournalist, one of the first in television,” said Stanley S. Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting.
Nelson helped Hubbard’s late father broadcast the first regularly scheduled newscasts in Minnesota and the nation’s first color images.
“Skip was signed on early in this exciting new business, and he just lived, breathed and slept in photojournalism,” Hubbard said.
“Fire in the belly” made the creative Nelson tenacious, but in a good way that opened doors, he said, adding, “Twenty-four hours a day, he was on the ball, and he taught so many people how to be a photojournalist.”
When Brad Jacobs joined KSTP more than 55 years ago, he realized that he’d met a genius nicknamed “Skipper.”
“If a unique piece of photographic equipment was needed and there was none available, he would invent it and make it,” Jacobs said. “Many times he would leave on Friday with only an idea of what was needed to solve a problem, and on Monday he would show up with a completed piece of functioning equipment.”
Nelson was “the glue that held the KSTP photo department together” in the early days and he was a force in the station becoming a Midwest news leader, Jacobs said. And, he added, Nelson was a kind, inspiring mentor.
Nelson won many awards; some of his best photos have graced White House walls.
In 2003, the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting inducted Nelson into its Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame. He’s legendary, curator Steve Raymer said, for bribing a cop with a fifth of whiskey to get inside the gruesome house of killer and body snatcher Ed Gein for exclusive photos, just before the house burned up.
Raymer also lauded Nelson’s award-winning documentary on the St. Croix River and popular KSTP Cinerama features at the State Fair.
Always after the best angles, Nelson once paid to hire a crane so he could get aerial shots of the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s ice palace.
He broke ground while working 30 years with NFL Films, which named him its “All Time All Pro Cameraman.” And he was named photography director for the 1990 Olympic Festival.
“I’ve never met anybody that could equal his abilities at all — never,” Jacobs said.
Nelson wanted to be remembered by a phrase referring to an aperture setting for bright, sunny days: “May all your days be F22.”
He is survived by his former wife, Grace; children Scott, Connie, Brad and Linda; 12 grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and siblings Bob, June and Carmen.
Services are being planned.