Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Eulogy

Charles Nelson was a complicated man.  He was, I believe, the personification of something that we used to hear a lot about, but which his left-leaning son has long felt was in short supply: a compassionate conservative.  The son of a Swedish immigrant steelworker who was a card carrying union member his entire life and a woman who grew up in rural South Dakota, he was a self-made man, a life-long Republican, who believed, first and foremost, in our legal system and in justice for all.  Dad was an animal lover who also loved to hunt.  He was a Christian who, as many here have already attested, enjoyed a ribald joke. He had what some might describe as an inelegant golf swing, but readily offered advice to others on theirs, whether solicited it or not.

photo courtesy of Jeff Nelson

He allowed his sons to find their way in the world with little direct instruction, but with substantial influence.  When his eldest son turned from an eighth grader who made a “Nixon Now, More than Ever” poster to a high school senior distributing Mo Udall flyers outside of the plants in Jackson when the shifts changed he never protested.  Don’t get me wrong, there were a few topics that I studiously avoided discussing with Dad, chief among them global climate change.  But he rarely drew bright lines when it came to raising his sons, or in making and remaking himself. 

The advice that Dad gave Jeff and me regarding our vocational choices was relatively simple: “(1) I don’t care what you do for your careers once you get your medical degrees; (2) If you go into the armed services, go in as an officer; and (3) If you go into the armed services, never volunteer for anything.”  The fact that Jeff and I ignored the first, and Jeff the third, of those admonitions was the culmination of what I suspect was a long-standing realization that we would not choose the paths that he recommended, although our math and science grades likely softened the blow with regard to the whole career in medicine thing.  I do know that, regardless, he was proud that his sons both followed in his footsteps, that his daughters-in-law were actual and de facto lawyers, and that his grandson Ethan will be a third-generation Nelson lawyer.

There were things he could have been truly disappointed about in Jeff and me but wasn't: the failure of either of us to embrace the Boy Scouts despite Dad’s status as an Eagle Scout; my refusal to accept an invitation to join the cross country team despite being asked by the coach to do so; consideration of journalism as a career; consideration of photography as a career.

He could be, and was, hard on us when it came to some things, particularly our grades and the chores that we were given to do around the house.  I’ll never forget when I came home one day my junior year in high school to tell Mom and Dad that I had been named a National Merit Scholar Semi-Finalist only to be told by Dad that, if that was the case, I should have been making better grades.  If only I had known at any point before the last month what I know now (discovered after Jeff and I were going through things at our house several weeks ago), I surely would have had a conversation with Dad about it: my grades were better than his in college and law school. 

There was another discovery that I made sifting through the house that speaks more of Dad as the truly humble person, despite all that he achieved, that he was.  We knew that Dad had run track and cross-country at Carleton College, and that his roommate was the author and distance running guru Hal Higdon.  But that was about all that we knew of his athletic career.  Lo and behold, I discovered two weeks ago that not only did Dad run, but he ran very well.  In the 1953 Conference Track Championship, Mr. Higdon won the mile and Dad finished third.  Both the Carleton cross-country team and the track team won their conference meets in his senior year, with descriptions of both teams as being talented, with the talent running deep.  This reflects Dad’s outlook regarding life: the run, and the hard work preparing for the run, are most important. 

This is a philosophy that Dad maintained, and perhaps came close to perfecting, in his second career as a Judge.  He tackled the work of a jurist with the same enthusiasm that he had as a litigator, but through that job he demonstrated that he was willing to continue to learn, to grow, and, I believe, to become more passionate about life and more compassionate about those whose lives were in his hands.  I find it interesting and humbling that, just as Dad was undoubtedly better known as, and defined by, his “second career” so too Jeff and I have been shaped by and identified with vocations that we pursued beyond our law degrees.  As proud as I know he was that both Jeff and I are lawyers, I believe he may have been more proud of our second careers: Jeff's as an Army officer and mine as a soccer coach. Jeff and I often remarked to each other that we couldn't have imagined being in the other's shoes: either in Afghanistan or Guatemala or the Middle East for training or tours; or on a soccer field with a gaggle of high school girls six days a week for three months a year for ten years.  But, honestly, neither could we have imagined those endeavors for ourselves, or considered the possibilities of what we could achieve through them, without having in the backs of our minds what Dad consistently told us: do what YOU want, but once you choose to do it, stay the course and do it well.

The one thing about Dad that was uncomplicated was his faith and his unwavering lack of fear of death.  I remember being horrified as a child when Dad came home to declare to us that he had just purchased a life insurance policy that had a double indemnity clause and that, if he would ever have a heart attack, we should drag him to the top of the stairs and throw him down so that the benefits would increase.  Later in life he often referred to and planned for what to do when he died and gave generous gifts of support for us and our families with the simple notation: “in lieu of my death.”  He left few details regarding this service other than the day of the week on which it should be held (so as not to disrupt anyone’s work, I suspect), but more express ones for the “reception with drinks at the Club to follow.” 

Jeff read from Matthew, which I would expect from my Southern Baptist brother.  I chose (thanks to Cindy) this short passage from Ecclesiastes, probably the most irreligious of any book of the Bible, in which Solomon teaches us that one should embrace the simple pleasures of daily life: eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's work, which are gifts from the hand of God.  Ecclesiastes chapter 7, verse 2 simply states: "You learn more at a funeral than at a feast." This is what I believe Dad would want us to learn today, and what he expected from Jeff, from me, and from all who are here:

For Pete’s Sake don’t mope; be strong.  Be of strong faith as well, but whatever your faith or belief system is, do not try to impose it on others.  Laugh.  Love.  Most importantly, celebrate life.  How we celebrate his life today he left for us to decide, and I hope we have done him justice.  But as for life itself, he very much intended for us to celebrate that now, and for as long as we can.