Former chief ‘a strong and steady guardian’; Former police chief Robert Nelson passes away at 93

Published 8:52 am Friday, April 14, 2017

It is probably no accident that you would have a hard time finding many photos of the late Austin police chief, Robert “Boomer” Nelson.

According to friends and family, he wasn’t someone who sought the limelight. So when the Austin Daily Herald went looking for photos to accompany this story, they were a bit disappointed.

But the lack of photos probably says as much about the chief as anything else. After doing some research on Austin’s former police chief and former emergency management coordinator, it seemed clear that having a photo taken was the least of the priorities held by Nelson, who died March 31 at age 93.

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What did head his list was being “a strong and steady guardian of the city’s laws” and doing it “in an unpretentious (sic), fatherly way. He could be tough, but he would listen, too,” according to an Austin Daily Herald editorial, written upon his retirement in 1983.

That falls in line with memories held by Don Hoffman, who succeeded Nelson as chief. Nelson had served for 21 years and Hoffman was a captain in the department before taking over the top spot.

“He could be tough,” said Hoffman, who continues to live in Austin. “And he wanted to know what everyone was doing. We [in the department] occasionally had our ups and downs, but overall, we got along really well.”

Robert “Boomer” Nelson

Nelson was an Austin native, the oldest of three boys born to Peter and Marie Nelson. His dad, a construction worker, died in an accident, leaving Nelson to watch over his mom and brothers, Dick and Dave.

Nelson was an athlete who earned 10 letters in football, track and swimming at Austin High School. Swimming was his standout sport, earning state placings in both diving and the backstroke — and, when his grandson, John, was also competing in the backstroke years later, Nelson was right there cheering him on, said his youngest daughter, Becky Faas.

He also earned placings in diving and the backstroke during his stint with the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He would go on to swim just about every day at the Austin YMCA, said Faas, until his health deteriorated.

He was a student at AHS when he got the name “Boomer.” Two stories circulate on how he got the name. His daughter recalls one of her uncles telling her that it had something to do with going to see the movie, “Boom Town,” and kids telling him he looked like one of the actors, so “Boomer” was born.

But another story down through the years say the nickname stemmed from his diving.

“He would hit the water, ‘Boom!’ and someone said it started there,” Faas said, with a chuckle. “I am not sure which one is right.”

Law enforcement seemed a good match for Nelson, who had the discipline afforded both an athlete and a soldier. When he applied for a spot on the force in 1947, he said it was a pretty simple procedure to be hired, Faas said.

“He said, George Roope took him out in the country and had him shoot a gun,” Faas said. “So Dad did, and that was it. ‘You’re hired,’ he told Dad and that’s how it started.”

A year later, he was was named detective; in 1952, he received FBI law enforcement training as well. After he was named chief in 1962, staying on top of new procedures and programs was part of his make-up. Hoffman recalled the work Nelson and former Mayor Baldy Hansen did in studying and then implementing the 911 emergency system “well before most towns did, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth — it was in place well before any of those towns had it,” Hoffman said. The same was true for his push for officer training; and the law enforcement center, which he thought was important to the community. The station relocated its quarters to the current building, from its old space in a building on Fourth Avenue Northeast.

“He never did a job just to collect a paycheck,” agreed Wayne Madson, the county Emergency Management coordinator who succeeded Nelson in the position. “Bob was a very well put-together guy, very knowledgeable dealing with the public, and always a gentleman.”

He rarely brought the police chief job home with him, Faas said. He’d much rather spend time with his children and grandchildren, she said.

Faas said while he rarely talked of the job, she knew one thing: “To him, the law was the law, even if he didn’t always agree with it, it was his job to enforce it. He would also never ask one of his officers to do something he would not do himself.”

And while most cases did not bother him, “anything involving a child” could move him, she said.

In an article in the Herald upon his retirement, he reported while petty complaints took up time, they were responded to as well, whether it was warranted or not.

The story says, “Nelson recalled, ‘A lady called one time and said her kids were in taking a bath and they were splashing on the wall. She wanted us to dispatch a police officer out there to make them stop!’”

Nelson retired from the chief’s post in 1983. Praise came from all quarters.

Former mayor Robert Enright, in a letter to the Herald, said Nelson’s work was always “marked by a high degree of professionalism, and the members of his department received his complete loyalty but on the few occasions that it was necessary, he never failed to take the necessary action to improve the department.”

Upon his retirement as chief, he took over the emergency management post. Madson was trained by Nelson into the job in 2003 and was impressed with Nelson’s thoroughness in conducting the programming in the position.

After he retired, “he was at every sporting event, every activity” his grandchildren were in, Faas said.

“Home meant everything to him,” she said. “I might have missed an event, but he never did.”

In later years, Nelson and his wife, Delores, moved from town to a home they built themselves on Highway 105, on the Cedar River. He was a faithful angler, hunter and a lover of dogs, especially golden retrievers. He enjoyed going to the Boundary Waters with his brothers or taking his family to Okoboji, Iowa, for vacation. The years were good ones.

And then, Delores died last year, after the couple had been married 73 years.

It was “a hard transition,” Faas said.

“And then he broke his hip” a few months ago, from which he never recovered. He died surrounded by this most important to him: his family.

A former Herald reporter, David Kasey, probably had the appropriate words that named the sum of the man that was Boomer Nelson.

He wrote them upon Nelson’s retirement.

“During the Nelson era of law enforcement, we had the kind of respect for the law, the profession and its chief, that most cities would envy,” he said, ending his letter with, “to a tough cop, a good man and a gentleman.”

“He was,” Madson agreed, “an enrichment of life to get to know him.”