Every morning around dawn, Nelson was known to police the Famosa Slough for trash and recyclables and then spend the day caring for the 37-acre wetland near his home. He’d cut down nonnative species – including palm trees, to the chagrin of a few neighbors – and plant a variety of locally appropriate trees, grasses and bushes.
"He's going to leave a huge hole in San Diego conservation community," said Megan Flaherty, conservation project coordinator for the San Diego Audubon Society, who worked with Nelson on the group's Conservation Committee.
He also added human touches to allow San Diegans to better enjoy the wild enclave surrounded by houses and apartment complexes, such as park benches and steps on its trails.
He was not alone, working with other members and fellow board members of Friends of the Famosa Slough, nonprofit that has expanded the marshy area inhabited by terns, egrets and blue herons, along with plenty of long-lensed birdwatchers, before turning parcels over to the city.
Nelson, a member of the Conservation Committee of the San Diego Audubon Society, also supervised countless work parties of volunteers, schoolchildren and university students, who’d plant new plants, water them and learn how such flora can thrive in a saltwater environment.
A longtime board member of the Ocean Beach People’s Co-op, he lent his three decades of administrative experience to a decision-making process and financial management that saw a period of expansion for the landmark organic grocery store during a time of increasing competition from natural food chains.
Born Chester G. Nelson in northern Wisconsin, he was a third-generation Norwegian-American, inheriting his unshakeable work ethic from his schoolteacher mother and dairy-farming father, rising before dawn to milk cows and spending long days nurturing crops in the days when teams of horses still pulled farm equipment.
After studying Russian as a Korean War-era GI at the Army Language School in Monterey and earning a psychology degree at the University of Wisconsin, Nelson married Yvonne Peck (who died in 2001), in Madison, Wis., and landed a job doing personnel management work for the military.
About the time John F. Kennedy arrived in the Oval Office, Nelson, his wife, son and daughter moved to Washington, D.C., then in 1968 began a five-year stint on Germany, managing the hiring and promotion of local civilians for the Air Force in Wiesbaden.
It was there that he became involved in the American Theater in Wiesbaden, for which he acted, directed and stage managed – an obsession he continued to indulge after moving to back to the Washington, D.C.-area in 1973.
In the 1990s, Nelson retired from government service and moved to New York City, where he began a second career running a card and gift shop for the United Nations Children’s Organization (UNICEF) at U.N. Headquarters.
Nelson is survived by a daughter, Una Nelson-White in San Diego, a son, Erik Nelson, in Berlin, Germany, and siblings Carol Baker, Ruth Cray and Arnold Nelson. The family asks that memorial donations be made to Friends of the Famosa Slough.
There will be a memorial at the Famosa Slough at 11 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 6.