John Edwin Nelson
John Nelson loved St. Bernard dogs – more than 60 of them in his lifetime.
A retired music educator for Benton Harbor Area Schools for 19 years, Nelson was also a professional musician and dedicated environmentalist. He was known to many in the area as a "dog whisperer" for rescued St. Bernard dogs.
Nelson passed away June 11, 2019, at home following a long argument with cancer. He was 93.
“He loved French horns, pianos, Mozart and marching bands, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and national parks anywhere in the country. He loved teaching music to young students and anything to do with Civil War or World War II. He loved photography, camping, barbed wire and ghost towns of the Old West,” reflects daughter Karen McKinney of Muncie, Ind.
“If ever there was a word to describe Papa, it was ‘eccentric,’" she said. “He lived a very colorful and varied life, and he was never bored. He exposed us three kids to things many people never get to experience. He taught us to love dogs, appreciate music and cherish nature.”
A native of East Chicago, Ind., Nelson earned his music performance degrees from Northwestern University. He taught music in public schools in Tennessee and Georgia, and also worked as a commercial photographer in Atlanta in the early 1950s. He was a member of the Chattanooga, Tennessee Symphony, Atlanta Symphony and Atlanta Ballet Orchestras for six years before returning to Indiana in 1955, where he taught elementary and high school bands for 17 years in East Chicago, Cedar Lake, Whiting and Portage school systems.
Nelson relocated to Berrien Township in 1973 and taught band and vocal music in the Benton Harbor schools until his retirement in 1992.
His musical career included several decades as principal French horn in the Gary Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Heights Symphony Orchestra, Twin Cities Symphony Orchestra and St. Joseph Community Band. Nelson taught scores of private students, many of whom went on to classical music performance careers on French horn in orchestras across the country.
He was a supporter of the Lest We Forget non-profit organization in Michigan that kept the memories alive of World War II veterans. For decades, he played "Taps" on a vintage bugle at local Memorial Day services and veteran’s funerals, dressing in the uniforms of the veteran’s branch of service.
Nelson was active in the "Save the Dunes Council" efforts to establish the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. He also worked several years as a seasonal park ranger in Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyo., as well as the Dunes Lakeshore, and was thrilled to hear the area was re-designated as a National Park several weeks ago.
Nelson’s large format photographic landscapes of the Indiana Dunes have been published in several books and are part of the permanent archive collection with the U.S. National Park Service.
He is survived by wife, Patrice; former wife, Betty Hatfield of Ogden Dunes, Ind., and their three children, Robin Rayne, Karen McKinney and Allison Levin; three stepchildren, Phillip Hadley, Beth Anne Smith and David Hadley; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be from 1-4 p.m. July 26 at Sarett Nature Center, 2300 N. Benton Center Road, Benton Harbor. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to The Humane Society of Southwestern Michigan or the animal shelter of your choice. Those wishing to share a memory of John online may do so at www.starks-menchinger.com.