Public servant ready to end #039;a good run#039;

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 2, 2003

When all the years are added up, Robert Nelson has worked 56 years in public safety.

First as a lifeguard, then as a police officer and detective, later as police chief and finally as an emergency management director.

"It was good for me," he said Tuesday on his last day of work before retiring. "I feel sorry for the guy who goes to work hating his job. I never had that problem."

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He retired once before as Austin's police chief and now he is retiring again. This time, he said, it's for good.

"It's been a good run," he said. "I've enjoyed it all. If somebody asked me if I wanted to do it all over again, I would tell them 'I'd do it."

Local boy makes good

Nelson is a native of Austin, whose mother, Marie, worked for more than three decades at the original Austin Municipal Swimming Pool and the Mower County Courthouse as a matron.

His father died when Nelson was only 11.

"There were three sons in the family and I was the oldest. Mom had to support the entire family after dad died," he said.

Both brothers lived out of the area: one, a retired principal, at Clouquet, and the other, a retired teacher, in the Twin Cities area.

An Austin High School graduate, Nelson worked at the Austin Municipal Swimming Pool as a lifeguard for three years before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force, during World War II. He was an aerial gunner on an A-20 aircraft.

Staying physically fit has been a life-long pursuit of Nelson's. It started in high school, where he started in football, track and swimming and continued into adulthood. He is a charter member of the Austin YMCA and continues to work out daily.

He became a police officer when he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces in 1947 for a simple reason.

"I needed a job," he said. "I had a wife and a family on the way and I needed to put food on the table."

Then-Austin Police Chief George Roope hired Nelson, who originally tested for both patrolman and firefighter jobs.

After 18 months as a patrolman, he was promoted to become Austin's first detective.

After 13 years as a detective, Nelson was promoted to police chief, a position he held for the last 22 years of his 36 years in law enforcement work.

When he retired, he wasn't inactive for long. Jim Webber, then the local civil defense director, recommended Nelson for the job.

Nelson was part of the transition from civil defense director to emergency management director, proving once again the only constant in life is change.

"No one agency does it all in an emergency. It requires many different agencies. That was true in the mitigation of the flood damages suffered in Austin," said Nelson of his last job.

Austin has a history of flooding, but none were worse, in Nelson's opinion, than the twin 100-year floods in July 1978.

He has helped refine the city's and county's response to emergency and he is proud of that.

"We are better prepared to respond to an emergency," he said. "We have better equipment and more experience. We know what needs to be done and how to do it right."

Nelson officially announced his retirement a year ago. Terese Amazi, Mower County sheriff-elect, was appointed to take over the county duties. Austin Police Chief Paul M. Philipp will perform a similar role for the city of Austin.

Nelson also leaves his successors with an emergency preparedness plan to help guide their responses.

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Nelson said, "We can't take anything for granted."

According to Nelson, homeland security issues will permeate how local emergency preparedness directors do their jobs in the future.

He and his wife, Delores, have four daughters and many grandchildren.

"Delores had the most important job of all," he said. "She raised our family."

Nelson also has memories and "war stories" to tell after more than half a century of public service.

"I worked with six Mower County sheriffs," he said. "Carmen Halstenson and Wayne Goodnature were two of the best. They were more of the doer types and not the delegators."

He worked with Austin mayors from the days of Baldy Hansen to Bonnie Rietz.

"I'm a survivor," he said with a smile.

He is also a man of compliments.

"Don Hoffman did one of the best jobs of leadership in law enforcement ever during the Hormel labor dispute and strike," he said of his successor.

"I've always worked with good people," he said. "Don Mattice was a police lieutenant, who became a police chief in Illinois after he retired from here. Bob Rysavy was another favorite. He was a BCA agent and became head of the agency later in his career.

"And, Dorothy Lane was my long-time secretary and a great one and since I've become the emergency management director, I've had three good secretaries in the office. You can't manage an office without outstanding help and I've had it."

Nelson marvels at the progress made in crime-fighting by local law enforcement, but stops short of taking credit for any of it.

Instead, he said he will be remembered as a man who "played the hand he was dealt."

For 56 years it produced a royal flush for the citizens of Austin and all of Mower County.

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at