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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