Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Let me tell you about Dale
My future wife warned me as I was headed to meet her folks for the first time, during Easter weekend in 1986.
“Don't worry if my Dad doesn't talk to you much,” she said. “He's kind of quiet.”
That was an understatement. Dad could make Calvin Coolidge seem chatty. But it didn't take long for me to realize that his actions spoke volumes, revealing the wonderful person he was.
We lost Dad early Tuesday to pneumonia. He was 76.
I learned much about Dale Nelson from his friends and family over the years because he clearly was not one to boast.
Born to a family of Norwegian farmers, Dad was the youngest of four children and the first to head off, going to veterinary school at Iowa State University.
After serving in the U.S. Army, and short stays in New Orleans – where an elderly neighbor taught him how to make a perfect gin and tonic – Pennsylvania and Iowa, Dad went to the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine to teach and work with large animals.
Dad was humble. Covering schools for years, I've encountered many administrators with doctorates in education who insisted on being addressed as “doctor.” Dad was a gifted veterinary surgeon. A staff member told me Tuesday that one of his evaluations referenced "golden hands." But in the 26 years I knew Dad, never once did I hear him introduce himself as “doctor.”
He didn't need titles, and didn't seek out attention or credit. For years he resisted promotions, fearing they would mean more meetings and time away from what he enjoyed most, working with students and the animals.
He was a tough professor, requiring surgical students to write essay exams. Doctors, he believed, needed to learn how to communicate better. He also required that each of his children take a speech class in high school.
When working on big research projects, he insisted that younger doctors starting their careers got the credit, which he said they needed to advance in the “publish or perish” world of academia.
He was respected by his peers. Groups invited him around the world to help people in developing countries learn how to care for their livestock.
Dad enjoyed working with large animals, but had a soft spot for small creatures. It wasn't long after constructing an out building on the property in Monticello, two stray cats found their way inside to escape the cold. Dad soon created a shelf under windows with baskets, pillows and heat lamps so the two kitties could stay warm and still have a view.
Dad was a gentleman. I can't recall him saying an unkind word about anyone, except maybe University of Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. I heard him swear only once, after we broke a chainsaw blade while cutting down a tree in my backyard. I don't know what scared me more, the sight of the sharp blade flying off or the sound of Dad cussing.
Dad was generous. If help was needed, it would arrive, quietly, of course – and without the beneficiary having to ask for it.
He loved his three grandchildren, taking delight in hearing about the latest school projects or activities. They were, perhaps, the subject of Dad's only boasting.
And he took great joy in family gatherings, always sitting on the fringe, peeking over the newspaper, listening to the banter as a smile peeked out from under his bushy mustache.
Dad loved a good book, the morning paper, Illini football, cowboy boots, tending to his apple trees, and most of all, his wife of 53 years, Alberta.
Dad was quiet, but after that first Easter weekend gathering, I quickly learned that when he had something to say, it was important. And I listened.