Ask friends and family how they would describe Russell Mark Nelson and the answer is nearly unanimous: Dedicated.
The former fire chief and long-time city employee died of lung cancer on Jan. 24.
Nelson was so dedicated to those close to him that when he lost his son Greggory to a car accident in 2008, he still finished building a house he had started for him, despite having cancer at the time.
“I think he was still kind of in shock, but he just wanted to get it done, because Greggory always wanted it done,” said Nelson’s younger brother Dave. “So he got it done.”
Having been born in Meadow Lake, Nelson was just as committed to the fire hall and to his community as he was his family. He joined the fire department in 1985 and became fire chief in 1997. He served in that role until he went on sick leave in 2010, but returned as a bylaw enforcement officer for the city in 2012.
“Russ was a natural-born leader. The fire hall was his life,” said close friend and deputy fire chief Joe Grela, who delivered the eulogy at Nelson’s funeral on Jan. 28.
“He constantly brushed up new techniques and made sure all was working correctly,” Grela added.
He credited Nelson with obtaining new equipment for the fire hall and constantly seeking new sources of funding.
“When he took it over, they still had the old red phones,” Dave said. “He installed a pager system and got them new fire trucks.”
Nelson, who worked as a carpenter before he joined the fire department, was also known as a handyman. In addition to Greggory’s home, he also built a house for his sister Laurie.
“Russell was always there, ready to lend a helping hand,” Grela remembered.
At the fire hall, Nelson was known for his bravery. Some would call him the terminator because he survived a lumber house falling on him as well as his first cancer diagnosis (kidney cancer in 2004). He defeated the cancer, but was diagnosed with cancer again in 2006, this time in his lung.
“If you were going into a burning building, he always had your back,” Grela said.
On a more personal level, Nelson was remembered for his encyclopedia-like memory of movie lines, as well as his love for practical jokes.
One of his favourite lines was “We treat you like a king…” followed by a pause and the punchline: “Rodney King.”
“It did not matter who you were … He would always find a way to tease you,” Grela said.
Nelson’s younger brother recalls Nelson’s more serious side too. He frequently asked his older brother for advice.
“He was just wise,” Dave said. “He knew lots about everything, the courts, politics, just life in general. He was just a smart guy all around.”
When he wasn’t at the firehall or utilizing his carpentry skills, Nelson enjoyed watching Star Trek, the X-Files and Seinfeld. Some of his favourite musicians were AC/DC and Merle Haggard.
He was also passionate about flying planes, riding motorcycles, and playing the guitar.
“He would often sit in his unfinished garage and play the guitar,” Grela said.
He was also very fond of his Shih Tzu, Lily.
“He loved that dog,” Dave said. “He trained that dog amazingly.”
Nelson was also keen on the fire hall’s social events, traveling (especially to Germany) and camping. But as the lung cancer took a greater toll on his body, it became more difficult for him to enjoy his favourite hobbies.
“I took him camping in August, and he was getting tired,” Dave said. “You could tell he was running out of breath.”
According to Dave, it was just over a year ago when Nelson was seemingly in great shape.
“Last November, the drugs he was on reduced the tumours by 41 percent,” Dave said. “So he felt great last November.”
But over time, Dave noticed his brother was napping a lot more.
“The energy levels would be good, then go down, then come back,” he said. “And the last year, they just kept going down and down and down.”
Nelson’s condition was not helped by charges he faced in 2011 of assault, forcible confinement and uttering threats against his wife Kathy. The charges were later dismissed.
“That took a lot out of him too,” Dave said. “He was a well-respected guy.”
One thing Dave will always remember about his brother is that even in very stressful and challenging situations, he retained his sense of humour.
“The fire hall, it was a lot of stress, took a lot from his home life,” Dave said. “But he was damn dedicated.”