He made me angry, and it could be hard to resolve one’s anger at Joe Nelson.
He made everybody angry. He was an equal opportunity annoyer. You had to take a number.
And before your number came up, he had done something to make you love him.
It wasn’t fair.
In the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers were one of many radical groups trying to start The Revolution, Joe Nelson used to debate politics with Fred Hampton, national vice-chair of the Black Panther Party. Hampton would come into Joe’s print shop in Maywood, Illinois, just to argue.
Joe, once a socialist, was by the 1960s a rock-ribbed Barry Goldwater Republican. He and the bright, articulate young black radical saw most things through opposite ends of the telescope. Both enjoyed the stimulation of their running squabble.
When Hampton was gunned down by law officers in a pre-dawn raid at his Chicago apartment, Joe did not hesitate to call it a police-led assassination. He was a conservative, not a fool.
Since he was my father-in-law, I spent a fair amount of time with Joe Nelson.
One day I saw him provoke a local store manager. The man was spitting mad. Within a minute, the two were good buddies. They parted with broad smiles. Joe did that kind of thing all the time. You could say it was his M.O.
His dad had been a printer and editor who worked for a newspaper chain, starting small-town weeklies in the Dakotas. Once the local clarion-ledger-press-herald was up and running, he turned it over to someone else and moved on to another little burg to repeat the process. It must have been a sketchy living. Six-year-old Joe and his older brother Maurice were farmed out to a Catholic orphanage for two years because their parents couldn’t feed all four boys. The Nelsons weren’t Catholic, but the good sisters would not turn anyone away.
Even when the family was together, they moved continually. Joe attended thirteen different public schools en route to his high school diploma.
Some kids would wilt and turn inward in such circumstances. Joe toughened up and turned outward. He figured if you wanted friends, you had better make them quickly. He honed that skill.
When I met him, he was in his sixties, a master at getting along with people. He got along with everybody, to whatever extent he chose. He was always in charge of the relationship.
I met him because I was attracted to his daughter, Joelle, whom I met at Knox College. Fair, feminine, and flirty though she was, I have since come to realize that her sterling character was formed more by her flinty father than by her gracious mother.
Elsa was the soul of respectability and conventionality. Joe, not so much. His mind was keen and penetrating. He did things the way that made sense to him.
When Joelle was a teenager, she had no curfew. By the wisdom of the day, she should have become a wild, out-of-control teen—one of those “crazy, mixed-up kids” the adult world talked about. It never happened. Her father taught her that arbitrary rules were no substitute for good sense and human kindness.
He often called himself an anarchist, of the purest stripe. “If we actually followed Christ and lived the Golden Rule,” he said, “laws would be unnecessary.”
When Joelle went on a date, Joe insisted the young man come into the house and engage in a few minutes of conversation. He always checked the boy’s driver’s license—to make sure the boy had one. Joelle may have chafed at this indignity; but she suffered in silence, then stayed out as late as she pleased.
When she came home—whether at midnight or four a.m.—Joe would be awake in the living room, reading a paper by the light of a table lamp. “Did you have a good time?” he would ask. “Yes, Daddy,” she would say. As she flew up the stairs to her bedroom, he would fold his paper, lock the door, and turn out the lights.
She knew he would never complain about the lateness of her arrival. She also knew he would be at work by six the next morning.
“On a weekend?” I hear you ask. Let me explain, Dear Reader. He was the owner of his print shop. His employees had limited hours; Joe did not. He had to make it work.
Joe had not always been a printer, though he had learned the trade at his father’s knee.
Sidelined from military service in the Second World War by a pair of disease-scarred eardrums, he had served as a civilian flight instructor at Purdue University, training the pilots of our South American allies.
After the war, having survived the macho antics of his Latin flying students, he got a job as a mechanic at Sky Harbor airport in the Chicago suburbs. He serviced private aircraft for Chicago’s high rollers. Entertainer/impresario Tommy Bartlett, soon to become a Wisconsin water-ski maven, was one of his clients.
When a wealthy customer crash-landed his plane in a field somewhere, Joe would pack up his tools, take a train to the site, patch up the plane enough to get it into the air, and fly it home.
It was a life he loved, but it was an all-hours occupation. It kept him away from home. When he did come home, he found his young tot, Joelle, terrified of her own father. He had become a stranger to her.
So he gave up flying and went into the printing business. That also was demanding, but he was home every night, and his daughter got acquainted with him.
Did I mention that Joe was sociable? His early life gave him the skills not only to form firm friendships quickly but also to negotiate with anyone about anything, on a very practical basis. He had boundless energy, a deep well of patience, and an endless fascination with people.
So naturally, besides running a business, raising a daughter, and participating in church and social functions, he entered politics. He ran for school board and won a seat. The Proviso school district was split between the suburbs of Maywood and Melrose Park. Joe was from Maywood, a town that had been racially integrated since its founding after the Civil War. It was integrated in this sense: Black residents lived in South Maywood and white residents in North Maywood.
The school board, however, was dominated by members from Melrose Park, a heavily Italian city.
Things were done Chicago-style. Joe had run as a reformer, so he was taken for a tense ride in the back of a large automobile, where the facts of life were explained to him. Contracts to paint the district’s several schools were coming up. By long tradition, these contracts were not let by open bidding but were simply divvied up among school board members. Each member got to choose the contractor for one school. The message was loud and clear: Don’t rock the boat.
Joe accepted his status as contract czar for a single school. Competitive bidding on contracts was not a hill he wanted to die on. He found a Maywood neighbor who needed the work and could do the job. [In the original version of this post, I inaccurately asserted that he recruited a minority-owned business to do the job. My wife pointed out that this was not so. I’m afraid my heroic mental image of Joe overwhelmed my usually accurate memory cells.]
The next election cycle, Joe recruited a black candidate, Dr. John Vaughans, for the other Maywood-connected seat on the school board. They campaigned together in the next election and both won. Two mavericks on the seven-member board did not work a miraculous change. But it was a start.
Joe believed in the American ideal of equality, and he could see that African Americans consistently got the short end of the stick. That did not make him a liberal. When teachers went on strike, Joe took a hard line in defense of taxpayers.
He was a tough negotiator. He made sure there were pitchers of cold water at the negotiating table, but he abstained from drinking any. Bargaining sessions could hinge on the relative bladder strengths of the negotiators. Joe’s frequent line was, “Wait a minute. We can always take a recess later, but why don’t take a few extra minutes right now and hash this out? Nobody leaves the table till we settle this point.”
In later years, after retiring from the school board, he was appointed to Maywood’s human relations commission. The work often involved mediating conflicts of view between the city’s white and black residents. He poured all his patience, skill, and goodwill into it.
We were driving around one day, and Joe stopped to point out a rather ordinary-looking playground on a patch of land in South Maywood. “That was a vacant lot,” he said. “The city owned it. It was just doing nothing, no good for anybody. I thought it would be good if were a playground. A lot of kids in this neighborhood could use it. I started mentioning it to people, but it still took twenty years before we got it.”
“Why so long?”
“Inertia.” Joe snorted derisively at the memory of inertia-bound bird-brains in city hall. “Nobody wanted to do something new, unless they themselves got something out of it. You know how we finally got it done? We suggested the playground be named after the guy that was the biggest obstacle standing in the way. So there it is, the Alderman Doakes Playground.”
I let out a sigh.
“It proves you can do something, if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
In his public persona, Joe Nelson was by turns cunning, stubborn, and ingratiating. His incredible versatility brought to the fore whatever strengths were needed at the moment.
But what bound me to him, what made me love and admire him, what it was about him that helped inform my own slowly maturing character, was most observable in private moments.
Joe had not an ungenerous bone in his body. He regarded opponents as unfortunate, misguided people whose perspective might yet be transformed if he kept on patiently presenting the truth, as he so clearly saw it, to them. He called this “planting seeds.” In all the times I saw him arguing political or other points with people, including myself, I never saw him give way to anger.
His opponents got angry. Furious, even. Joe would smile, wink, and repeat their own points back to them, stripped down to their absurd essentials. He never left an argument untended. If his opponent walked out on him, he considered the conversation unfinished—an investigation to be resumed at leisure.
His and Elsa’s only child, Joelle, was the apple of their eye. Anything that was theirs was hers, automatically, without question. When I became her husband, anything that was theirs was mine also, because I was part of her and part of them.
I did not understand this. How could people be that giving? In my own family, gifts were stintingly given. We tended to operate on a presumption of scarcity. Joe and Elsa worked on a principle of abundance. There would always be plenty when it was needed, even when there did not seem to be enough to go around.
I could not accept Joe and Elsa’s open-handed love in a gracious way because nothing had prepared me for it.
Callow though I was, once I joined the family, I was theirs and they were mine. The price of my inclusion was that I had to learn to relax and enjoy it.
It took me years.
Joe and Elsa made a buy-sell agreement with their print shop foreman, and they retired to a house on a wooded hill near Dodgeville, Wisconsin.
Retirement was harder on him than on her. He poured his prodigious energies into building and improving the house and property. He took up skiing, eventually breaking his leg on a cross-country trail.
Little ailments began to creep up on him. A couple of larger ills—a serious bout of diverticulitis and a small stroke—made him an invalid, much against his will. You might say they reduced him to an invalid. He became smaller, suddenly, involuntarily.
He had no gift for inactivity, much less for being dependent on others. He rallied, for a while, but the second stroke killed him.
He lay in a bed in the Dodgeville hospital looking up at us, unable to speak. He summoned all his powers to utter the single word, “Why?” We had no answer.
Most people uttering that monosyllable would have been saying, “Why me? Why did this have to happen?” Something of that sort.
But you had to know Joe. He was a realist. I am confident his final “Why?” meant, “Why not face the facts? It’s over. Why prolong it?”
He tried to pull the IV tubes out of his arm. Although he did not succeed, he died a day or two later anyway, sometime in the fall of 1987.
He had run a good race.
At 42, I was still a mixed-up youth. But I had learned a lot about life just by knowing Joe.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer