Opinion

Willard Charles Nelson

Willard Charles Nelson, a consummate storyteller whose own life on Minnesota’s North Shore and long career in sales became the stuff of family legend, died Jan. 19, 2018. He was 103.

For quite a few years Willard was the oldest known male World War II veteran in northern Minnesota.

He is survived by son Dick Nelson, Lutsen and daughter Connie Ahlberg, Burnsville; grandchildren Joel (Crystal) Nelson, Sterling, Colo., Noelle Nelson (Paul P. Phillips), Minnetrista, Monique (Eric) Albright, Midland, Mich., and Erik (Tami) Ahlberg, Singapore; great-grandchildren Joshua Albright, Wyatt Nelson, Jordan Nelson, Maya Albright, Carter Albright, Kjerstin Ahlberg and Andrew Ahlberg; and lifelong dear friend Bob Watts of Duluth.

Willard was known and called Willard by his family and Cook County roots; however in the military and business world he was always “Bill” Nelson. No one knew who you were talking about if you used the wrong first name in the wrong setting.

Willard enjoyed sitting by a fire and scouring the day’s newspapers. But it was his own stories, often repeated, that over the course of time became larger than life.

There was the one about carrying individual rocks from the shores of Lake Superior with his brother and father to craft a cobblestone fireplace. Or fighting off a bear during an 11-mile walk in the woods because his brand-new Buick didn’t start after a day of blueberry picking. Or about telling a guest at his cabin on Clara Lake that bear were so plentiful that year, why, he bet he could open the door and a bear would be standing there. And a bear was standing there.

A few of his favorite things: his treasured family and its lineage to include the story of Lutsen, engaging others, a sometimes-crude joke, polka music, trips around Isle Royale, T-shirts and caps with off-color humor, and a belief that the Minnesota wildlife seemed hell-bent to annoy him personally.

Willard was born in Rhinelander, Wis., on Nov. 11, 1914, returning to Lutsen on the America. His father Carl rowed out in a skiff to get Phoebe and baby Willard, who was handed down to his father in the boat.

He left home at age 18 with $20 in his pocket, encouraged by Charlie Ward of Brown & Bigelow, who felt Willard had more promise than working on his parents’ resort on Caribou Lake could offer.

Willard’s career in sales began by selling Brown & Bigelow calendars, then to Standard Oil, and later to Roosevelt Fiat Motors of America. He rose to become vice president and national sales manager, and was fascinated to meet and work with Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.

A veteran, Willard was a proud member of the Minnesota National Guard 34th Infantry Division. On March 1, 1941, Willard was one of 600 men who left the Duluth Armory and marched down London Road and Superior Street to the Duluth depot. There they boarded a troop train to Louisiana, destination Camp Claiborne. However, Willard and the men who became his tent-mates were part of an advance detail to set up camp in a sea of mud.

He remained devoted and enriched by his tent mates at Camp Claiborne for what is now 77 years. In 2018, just two remained: Bob Watts and Bill Nelson as part of the 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division. Bill called Bob “the kid” because when they enlisted Bob was not truthful with his age of only 16. Bob organized in 1947 a luncheon at the Pickwick Restaurant in Duluth, which has had a monthly noon business lunch of the 125th Field Artillery Division. Those Army comrades have met on the second Tuesday of every month since 1947—70 years—840 meetings. The kid organized and conducted every meeting. Bill now defers to “the kid Bob,” who is the last man standing.

Willard, devoted to family and its Swedish heritage, was proud of his grandfather, Charles Axel Nelson, who with his wife Anna Nelson (nee Peterson) settled at the mouth of the Poplar River at what became Lutsen Resort. Willard and his wife Dorothy journeyed to Norrköping, Sweden in 1980 to glean Charles Axel’s family origin.

They met with the publisher of Norrköping’s newspaper and were assisted in finding the small house where Charles grew up.

When Willard retired to Lutsen he was dismayed at the condition of the Lutsen Cemetery. All of the county townships had dissolved after each school closing. Willard went door-to-door to get signatures to begin the Lutsen Township with the personal hope that the neglected cemetery would get care from the township. His efforts were successful, and Tofte and Schroeder townships soon followed.

Willard was preceded in death (in order in which they passed) by his father, Carl F. Nelson; brother Harold Nelson; mother Phoebe J. Nelson; sister Dorothea Nelson; brother Thomas Nelson; and beloved wife Dorothy Elvira Nelson (nee Engebretsen).

Profound gratitude to Becky and Loren Stoner of Hill Haven in Grand Marais, Cook County North Shore Hospital and Care Center medical staff, Ecumen Scenic Shores, and St. Croix Hospice.

In the ecumenical spirit a Celebration of Life memorial service for Willard will be held this Memorial Day at Lutsen Lutheran Church. A Catholic mass will be celebrated by Father Seamus Walsh at 11 a.m. May 28. A traditional Scandinavian meal will be served in the Lutsen Resort dining room following the memorial service.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts are preferred to the Lutsen Cemetery Association Perpetual Maintenance Fund, or the American Heart Association.


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