The hierarchy of Stan Nelson’s life begins with faith and family and ends with football.
In between is country, which he served during World War II while operating one of the first boats to land on Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the beaches invaded on D-Day.
It didn’t seem historic at the time to Nelson, now 99 and living near Anoka where he became a legend coaching the high school football team for 26 years. Talking about it 75 years later like it was yesterday, he simply said he had a duty to fulfill.
But on Saturday, Nelson’s name will be fastened to an auditorium on a former state hospital campus in Anoka that now is home to dozens of veterans. On the sign will be the logo for the nonprofit Haven for Heroes and the words: “In honor of LTJG [Lieutenant Junior Grade] Stan Nelson.”
Haven for Heroes, which has renovated some of the large “cottages” at the Anoka State Hospital into housing for low-income veterans, plans to restore the auditorium built in 1917, three years before Nelson was born.
“My name is only on the building, but it’s in honor to all the veterans,” Nelson said.
Bart Ward, acting directing of Haven for Heroes, said the dedication is the first of several planned in coming months as crews of volunteer vets work to restore the state hospital buildings. Two cottages already provide homes for both men and women who have served.
“Stan’s got a great history in Anoka,” Ward said. “The story of his involvement on June 6, 1944, in the landing on Normandy is good, [and] of course his football work. Stan has really made a difference in a lot of people’s lives, particularly in his coaching days.”
Nelson said he “grew up in an athletic atmosphere” in Dawson, Minn., in the west-central part of the state. He and his two brothers played every sport, including football. “I mean, that was life,” he said. “In a small town there’s not much to do.”
His father, Isaac, died of the Spanish flu when Stan was only 2, leaving his mother, Christine, to raise the brothers on her own during the Great Depression. She worked at a local cafe for a dollar a day, and Nelson recalls walking along the railroad tracks with a gunnysack and sled, looking for spilled coal to bring home.
When the war broke out Nelson was a senior at Augsburg College, where he was an offensive guard and linebacker for the Auggies. He and his roommate listened to the radio broadcast announcing the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. “We looked at each other and he says, ‘Let’s join,’ ” Nelson said.
Nelson’s brothers, Edor and Norman, enlisted without any problem. But when Nelson went to join the Army Air Corps, he didn’t pass his physical due to poor depth perception. His next course of action was to join the Navy. On Christmas 1943, he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to England where he trained until the invasion in June 1944.
The Navy held mock exercises that bolstered Nelson’s confidence with the landing craft. He was young, unafraid and used to teamwork.
Within eight minutes of dropping anchor off the Normandy coast on D-Day, Nelson needed to get 250 soldiers on shore before heading back out to sea for more. He repeated the mission over and over while keeping in mind the waves and wind that could swamp his landing craft.
His brother Edor was captured by the Germans and spent months in a POW camp before escaping. After the war he returned to Minnesota and Augsburg, where he coached football and baseball. Augsburg’s stadium today is named Edor Nelson Field.
Nelson coached dozens of players, including sons Dave and Steve. Dave announced Tuesday that he’s retiring as head coach of the Minnetonka High School football team after a stellar 36-year career there and at Blaine. Steve, a standout athlete at Anoka High School and North Dakota State University, played 14 seasons as a linebacker with the New England Patriots and was named to the Pro Bowl three times.
Stan Nelson and his wife, Marcie, were married for 64 years before she died in 2011. She never missed a football game, even when he was out due to appendix surgery.
“My mom used to wash all the Anoka [football] jerseys,” Dave Nelson said. “In the basement she had clotheslines, and I remember as a kid running through all these pants and jerseys. And my dad was superstitious — he wore the same shirt every game.”
Every Friday, Marcie would have that shirt hanging out ready for Stan, who didn’t realize his wife also was wearing the same dress during those winning streaks.
“I guess people in town thought, ‘Boy, are they poor.’ She wears the same dress, he wears the same shirt,” Stan Nelson said, laughing.
Dedication ceremonies will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at the state hospital campus, 3300 4th Av. N., Anoka. Tours of the renovated cottages will start at 5 p.m., followed by dinner and the dedication in the auditorium. The event is open to the public.
“I’m so happy, so proud that I had the chance to serve my country,” Nelson said. “That’s the biggest thing in my life, other than my marriage and family and religion.”
Bigger than football? “Oh,” he said, “it’s the biggest thing in the world. … I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”