Robert L. “Red” Nelson, 1924-2011

I find myself saying it often, and I will say it again on this first Friday in March: They really were the Greatest Generation, weren’t they?

They were men who were raised poor, served their country during World War II and then worked hard to care for their families, build businesses and improve their communities.

I realize I’m not unique. There were other men like my father out there. It took a lot of them to make our country great.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t fortunate.

The older I get, the more I realize how lucky this Arkansas boy was to have Robert L. “Red” Nelson as his father.

Dad had been in declining health for a number of years and finally gave up the fight at 6:10 p.m. Thursday at age 86.

I wish all of you could have known him in his prime. He was a larger-than-life character. He talked loudly (I come by it honestly), laughed loudly and loved to gig the many college students who held part-time jobs in his business through the years.

One thing he never did was brag. In that sense, he was like others in his generation.

I knew he loved sports (and found a way to make a living through sports), but it wasn’t until much later in life that I began to do research and discover what a talented athlete he had been.

He was born into a poor family in 1924, the youngest of three children. They lived in a shotgun house across the street from Benton High School. My grandfather was the city street superintendent, a man who would get his three children out of bed at 5 a.m. each Sunday to go downtown and clean the streets.

Those were the days when stores would stay open until 10 p.m. or later on Saturday nights. People would flock to town from the country, leaving plenty of trash on the streets. My grandfather, who had the great name of Ernest Ezra Nelson, wanted to be sure the streets were clean before people began arriving for church.

Talk about learning a work ethic early in life.

My dad starred in football and basketball at Benton High School. During the summers, he played independent league baseball and fast-pitch softball. He never told me about the time he scored 44 points in a basketball game against Hope. At the time, it was a Benton High School record. He never told me he was considered the state’s best fast-pitch softball pitcher. Others had to tell me that.

Like I said, my dad never bragged.

The great coach Bill Walton convinced my dad to play football at what’s now Ouachita Baptist University. Or maybe I should say he kidnapped my dad in the friendliest of ways.

Dad had earned union wages the previous summer for the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., which was helping build the Alcoa plant in Saline County. He thought he might stay on with the company and make money rather than going to college. My grandmother thought otherwise, convincing Walton not to let my dad return to Benton from Arkadelphia.

During that freshman season in 1942, the Ouachita football team lost only one game.

Dad joined the U.S. Army Air Forces following his freshman year of college and served for two years. He was trained as a bombardier on a B-17. I’ve written before how he was named the “most athletic” for his group of cadets and that one of the people he beat out for that title while stationed at St. John’s University in Minnesota was Bobby Thomson.

Yes, that Bobby Thomson, the guy who hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” on Oct. 3, 1951, to cap the New York Giants’ historic comeback against the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League pennant.

In typical Red Nelson fashion, he later told me he never realized it was the same Bobby Thomson.

Dad returned to Ouachita, where he met my mom. They celebrated their 64th anniversary on Aug. 11. He loved telling people how he had married the prettiest girl on campus.

Just as he had done in high school, my dad set what was then a school record at Ouachita for most points in a basketball game, scoring 38 points one night. That was at a time when high-scoring games were rare.

You guessed it: I knew nothing about that 38-point performance until years later. He just didn’t talk about it.

Dad was inducted into the Ouachita Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 and received the distinguished service award from the Benton Athletic Memorial Museum in 2008. It was nice to see him receive that recognition just before the dementia really set in.

Dad was hired as a coach at Newport High School after graduating from Ouachita in 1948. He spent three years there. He coached all sports at Newport and was known as one of the state’s up-and-coming coaches. But my older sister, Lynda, had been born by then, and my dad decided he could better provide for his family as a businessman. So he joined his older brother, Lowell, at Southwest Sporting Goods Co. in Arkadelphia. The Nelson brothers built that company into one of the largest retailers of team athletic supplies in the South.

Dad spent long days on the road calling on high school and college coaches. As a boy, there was nothing I loved better than being on the road with him. He was truly my hero. He knew virtually every coach in the state on a first-name basis. He could drive to any school in Arkansas without having to ask for directions, he knew every mascot and he probably knew the records at each school for whatever sport was in season.

When he was not selling team supplies, he was officiating football and basketball games. He also was a baseball umpire and for many years was the state’s premier track starter. I suspect that shooting that starting pistol next to his right ear for so many springs was one reason he was hard of hearing.

My mom and dad lost their oldest son when that son was 9 years old. I was 4. From then on, they showered my sister and me with the love they had previously spread among three children.

While other men went to sports events, fishing and hunting with “the boys,” I was my dad’s partner.

I remember the late nights in his big Oldsmobile as we returned from watching Arkadelphia Badger and Ouachita Tiger games.

I remember the early Saturday mornings when he would roust me from bed before daylight in order to go quail hunting or duck hunting.

He taught me how to put a worm on a hook and later taught me how to tie on artificial lures.

He taught me how to clean bream, catfish, crappie and bass.

He taught me how to swing a baseball bat and catch a fly ball.

I became proficient under his tutelage at breasting out a limit of doves and cleaning a mess of quail, though I remain a terrible shot while he was the best wingshot I’ve ever known.

I had a love of history from an early age. It would take us forever to drive through Texas since that state would advertise on signs: “Historic Marker In One Mile.”

I wanted to stop and read them all. Dad never failed to pull the big Oldsmobile over to the side of the road to see what the marker said. He was patient.

I remember coming home from a particularly harsh football loss one Friday night when I was the starting center at Arkadelphia High School.

Dad, who almost never criticized me, said as I walked through the den: “That noseguard whipped you tonight.”

He was right, of course. It hadn’t been one of my better games. But I was crushed by the comment.

I went to my room, shut the door and crawled into bed.

In the hall outside, I could hear my mom gently chastise him.

The door opened.

Dad kneeled beside my bed and said: “I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t mean it. Get some sleep. We’ll go duck hunting in the morning and have our limit before 8 a.m.”

I slept well after that.

Dad’s health deteriorated to the point that we had to move him in September 2008 from the home where he had lived for almost 50 years in his beloved Arkadelphia to a nursing home here in Little Rock.

His most common question as the dementia worsened these past two years was this: “When am I going to go home?”

On Thursday night, Red Nelson went home.

While my sister took my mother back to mom’s apartment last night, I spent more than an hour alone in his room, waiting for the funeral home personnel to make the drive from Arkadelphia to Little Rock.

I thought back on all the fun we had.

Lord how I wish that I could turn back the clock for one last quail hunt at Manning, one last duck hunt at Open Banks, one last fishing trip on the Caddo River, one last late-night drive through the pine woods between Monticello and Arkadelphia following a Ouachita game against the Boll Weevils.

But we’re not allowed to turn back that clock, are we?

At least I have the memories and no regrets. I’m the luckiest man in Arkansas today.

I watched the hearse as it slowly pulled out of the front gates of Parkway Village late Thursday night.

My hunting companion, my fishing companion, my adviser, my confidant, my best friend, my hero — my dad — was headed toward the southwest, home to Arkadelphia where the jonquils, the wild plum trees, the tulip magnolias and the Bradford pears are in full bloom.

Our long, cold winter has ended.

Spring has arrived.

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36 Responses to “Robert L. “Red” Nelson, 1924-2011”

  1. Vance Walker says:

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your Dad, Rex. I enjoyed reading your moving tribute to a great man. Thoughts and prayers are with you and your family during this time of loss.

  2. Jeff Necessary says:

    All of us who knew Red Nelson were better off for it. I’ll see you Tuesday, Rex.

  3. Ted Barker says:

    Rex

    I loved being around your Dad- trust me he was in his prime long past the athletic acheivements gave way to time. Your Dad was one of my Dad’s favorites, as I have told you before. Your personality is a reflection of the big life your Dad lived. I will miss him and proud I was his friend. Ihave NEVER known a dad to be prouder of a son than Red Nelson was of you. The last time I saw him was at the OBU Hall of Fame induction banquet. Reynolds and I came by just to shake his hand. I am glad we did.

    I am really sorry for your loss, what memories you have.

    I am praying for your family., especially your sweet Mom. – Your Dad is now fully restored and my Dad was there to welcome him home Thursday.

    To anyone who reads this who was not fortunate to know him, Rex paints a beautiful and accurate picture of a fine Christian man and role model.

    Hope to see you soon, Rex

    Ted

  4. Brian says:

    Rex, I am sorry to hear about your dad but thanks for the moving tribute. Reminds me of my dad too.
    Brian

  5. James Scott says:

    Rex,

    Sorry to hear of your Dad’s passing. I didn’t know him, but he and my father were of the same generation. I really don’t know how you wrote your tribute to him, but I’m glad you did. It moved me and brought back a lot of memories of my father who died too young.

    James Scott

  6. Mike McNeill says:

    Rex, I am sorry for your loss. A beautiful tribute.
    Mike

  7. Wally says:

    Rex, that’s one helluva tribute, your dad wouldn’t brag about it, but he’d be proud.
    Wally

  8. kayb says:

    My deepest sympathies on your loss, Rex. I didn’t know your father, but from reading your tribute, I feel like I did. You and your family are in my prayers.

  9. Terry DeWitt says:

    Rex and family,
    Red was a great man. Every time I entered SW Sporting Goods he would ask me about the Tigers football, basketball, or what-ever-ball team was playing. I enjoyed coming in there just to chat with Red. He smoked a pipe and I always enjoyed seeing him. He will be missed by many folks who loved him. Red was a great man

  10. Jim Brewer says:

    Rex, I read this with a tear in my eye. I lost my Dad a year and a half ago, three days short of his 92nd birthday. Your Dad sounds an awful lot like mine. In fact, if they had known each other, I have a feeling they would have been great friends. If there’s fishing in heaven (and how could it be heaven if there isn’t!), then maybe they’ve already met. You and in my prayers.

    Jim Brewer

  11. Steve Eddington says:

    Well done, friend. So sorry for your loss. We all should view our parents with the reverence and respect you have for yours.

  12. Larry Fugate says:

    Rex:
    A loving tribute well done. It speaks volumes about your father.

  13. Ron Kemp says:

    Beautifully written, Rex.

    As I am sure you know, it brings back a lot of great memories for me, too.

    We are both so blessed to have parents like we did — from the Greatest Generation.

    It was a great honor to have both our dads inducted into the Ouachita Sports Hall of Fame in the same year. They were great friends and great (and humble) men.

    You really honored the personality and essence of Red Nelson in your words. And I love your ending — in spite of our sorrow, there is always spring.

  14. Tracy Winchell says:

    Thanks for sharing such personal experiences with us, Rex. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. Somehow I suspect heaven is a lot like springtime in Arkansas.

  15. AllenK says:

    That was a wonderful tribute to your Dad Rex. All of you have our thoughts and prayers.

  16. Enrique Gomez says:

    Rex,

    Awesome tribute to the great Christian man your father will always be. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers in this time of deep sorrow and painful loss. May God bless you and keep you always.

    In Him,

    Enrique

  17. Michael Balay says:

    Beautifully said. You brought Red back to us for a moment. He would be proud of you.

  18. Carl Enna says:

    Rex: First–deepest sympathies and prayers for the loss of your dad and the endurance of your family. You’re tribute to him was unbeliveable…to be able to compose such a beautifull ballad. I’m sure if it was on paper it would be covered in tears. I know my computer keyboard was just from reading it. I felt like I’d known your dad all my life. Not only was he a man you were proud to call your dad….no doubt you were a man he was proud to call his son.

    Let us know if there is anything we can do for you……

  19. John P says:

    Rex -

    We all are proud of our Dads and I have enjoyed reading about Red over the past couple of days. I regret that all of us in our generation can’t get to know each other’s Dads. We would all be better for it.

    You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

    John Parke

  20. Dennis says:

    Rex,
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute. As many others have said it brought back memories of my own father. We are indeed fortunate to have had fathers like these. God bless you & your family during this time,you’re in my prayers. Dennis

  21. Robert Lebar says:

    At the ripe old age of 56, the memories of my youth are somewhat blurred and most certainly few, but I remember, with flawless clarity, every summer when that I spent in Arkansas. Each visit was an adventure beyond any contrived by H. G. Wells or Robert Louis Stevenson, and was much more important to me than I could have ever realized at that time. These were my annual summer trips from my home in Richmond, Virginia to Benton and Arkadelphia. My grandparents lived in Benton but my uncles Robert and Lowell Nelson lived in Arkadelphia. Just the very name Arkadelphia was otherworldly, I suppose because no one in Virginia had ever heard of it. Not many people in Virginia had ever heard of Arkansas either though. But to me the name meant everything. It meant fishing, water skiing, fish fries, berry picking, frog gigging, crawdad catching, fireworks and most of all spending time with my uncle Robert Nelson. Each time I arrived from Virginia, I felt that I had never really left after my previous visit. Upon arrival, I would be greeted by Uncle Robert with a voice both loud and playful and he would tease at me about some Virginia habit I had picked up since the last time I was around. That was when I knew that I was home. Uncle Robert had a special knack of making me feel good about myself. This might sound simple minded, but for an adolescent boy, unsure of almost every thing in his life, my uncle had an uncanny knack way of conveying that he was interested in everything I did and that no matter what I had or hadn’t accomplished, my life was important. He was gregarious, fun loving and most certainly larger than life, but he was also much more. He represented good and all things wholesome. Never critical, always interested, he was the father I never had.
    There are very few times when the moon and stars align to create a special person. Robert Nelson was such a man. Rex and Linda I write this through tears (and a little snot) but I want you both to know how lucky you were to have such a great dad. Please accept my deepest sympathy for your loss.
    Love
    Robert

  22. Ashley Kemp Wimberley says:

    Rex, thank you for sharing this beautiful tribute with us all. May you continue to find comfort in these special memories.

    Praying for your family.

  23. Rocky says:

    Great tribute. I fondly remember the great dinners with Red and you mom. Quiet a step up from the frozen pizza’s we were living on. I will always remember your dad sitting around the table at the store telling stories with Coach Vining and Coach Benson. They were all larger than life to me. We will all miss him. You, Melissa and the boys are in our prayers.

  24. rexnelson says:

    Thank you to everyone for the good thoughts and prayers. We are all doing fine. I will be sharing all of these comments with my mom and sister. I will see some of you at the visitation tonight and others at the memorial service Tuesday (11 a.m. at First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia). Please know how much we appreciate you all — Rex

  25. Mike Dugan says:

    Wonderful tribute for a great man. A whole lot of him lives on in his children and his grandchildren!

  26. rexnelson says:

    For those reading the comments, Robert Lebar is my cousin who I don’t see nearly enough. Your summer visits were special for all of us, Robert. We love you — Rex

  27. Jack Rhodes, Jr says:

    Rex- My wife, Dicey, and I spent the week-end in Benton visiting her folks, Richard and Venita Jacobs. Dick and I were drinking coffee and reading the paper and I saw your dad’s obituary, mentioned it to Dick and he said ” I knew Red. What a great athlete and gentleman.” Dick is exactly one month older than your father, grew up in Tull and attended school in Bauxite. They played basketball and baseball against each other.
    Like your dad, Dick was in the Army Air Corps. He was a tailgunner on B-17′s and did 20 daylight bombing missions over Germany. Bombed Berlin three times.
    Venita is six years younger, grew up in Benton and remembers your dad’s family fondly. She was an Erwin. Her dad had a barbershop
    downtown. May have even cut Mr. Red’s hair. She still holds the women’s high jump record for Benton High. And to top things off, she and Dick sent their oldest daughter, Dicey, off to a little school called Ouachita Baptist.
    All of that to say that the Nelson family was remembered over the weekend by the Jacobs and Rhodes families. We send our sympathy.
    Rex, I lost my dad in ’94. He was 80 and I think of him every day. And, as you can imagine, I cherish every minute I share with Dick. He’s been more like an older brother than a father-in-law.
    Many memories for you and I to hold dear. How fortunate we are.

  28. Bobby Jones says:

    So sorry for your loss Rex. I remember your dad coming in to the balcony of First Baptist Church, after the preacher has started the prayer. Henderson had lost a football game on Saturday and your dad would shout out in that booming voice, “Hey Jonesy, what happended to those Reddies?” Your mom would shush him but he had made his point and was smiling from ear to ear. So were the rest of the Ouachita church members.

    I will miss him too Rex.

    Your friend,

    Bobby

  29. Houston Taylor says:

    Rex…my apologies for the late response in touching base, but just wanted to say how sorry I was to hear about your father. What a great tribute you have here. You’re in my thoughts – Houston

  30. Libby Lloyd says:

    Rex -

    What a beautiful tribute. You’re right – they were the Greatest Generation in so many ways. Thanks for sharing some of your fondest memories of your father. My thoughts and prayers remain with you and your family.

    God Bless,
    Libby Doss Lloyd

  31. Neal Sumerlin says:

    Rex, you bring back such great memories of Ouachita Hills, the Southwest Store (in the old Post Office building!), and your dad. I remember playing with Bob and going to school with Lynda. I guess you were just too much of a youngster back then, but a few years don’t mean that much at our age. We lost our fathers within weeks of each other, but you know what? We are both very lucky men, indeed.

  32. Tom Larimer says:

    So sorry to hear about your dad, Rex. I didn’t know your father but I suspect he’d be most proud of this tribute. Thanks for sharing these great memories. Hold them close to you and they will always bring you comfort.

  33. rexnelson says:

    Neal: Your father was another of those Ouachita Hills legends. I knew you had just recently lost him. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — that little town was blessed with a group of remarkable men back then.

  34. Gordon Stephan says:

    And that “little town” is still blessed with some remarkable men, like you, today…..sorry I was so late in seeing this fabulous tribute…you are one of the richest men I’ve known.
    Godspeed,
    Gordon Stephan

  35. Mark Coppenger says:

    Rex,
    Greatest generation, indeed. What a man your father was. And what a writer his son is.
    Thank you so much for these words.
    Please give Lynda and your mom my regards and condolences.
    Mark C.

  36. Bill Fuller says:

    Rex – I spent a lot of time in your dad’s store. He was always so kind to me. He was one of my heroes too. I’m sorry for your loss, but rejoice in the fact that he is in a better place.

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