Legacy lives beyond life.
There’s a flat headstone tucked near a line of trees, hidden in a row of grave markers that aren’t visible above the grass. There’s a parking lot at an intersection in Chicago where people park every day and twice as much on Sundays. There’s a line of text printed on the bottom of a schedule that most people notice but never read. There’s a 30-year legacy that connects it all, and a bullet brought it together.
In 1974, Ron Nelson left a tenured teaching position at Michigan State University, took a 50-percent pay-cut and moved his family to Orange City.
“He wanted to teach at a liberal arts college,” said Ron’s son, Roger Nelson. “He loved to explore the intersection of faith and learning with college students.”
An article published in 1985 in the Des Moines Register said, “Friends and faculty members at Northwestern College say everything Nelson did stemmed from his desire to blend his faith and his knowledge with the way he conducted his life.”
According to his son, Ron approached life with a relentless curiosity and was always seeking more information, whether that was in conversations or in books.
“He was never without a book,” Roger said.
Roger used to play basketball in Orange City in high school.
“Roger would talk about Ron coming to watch him play and just bringing a book and he would just read the book and look up every once in a while,” said NW Chaplain Harlan Van Oort.
This never-ending desire for information led Ron to explore intellectual and historical topics that were ahead of his time. He taught Western Civilzation class as one of three instructors who integrated history, literature and philosophy. Rather than a single professor teaching a course, three instructors introduced their respective topics and created a conversational classroom setting.
According to Ron Juffer, a current professor who used to share an office wall with Ron, the class overwhelmed students due to the high amount of dialogue between the three professors. Ron acted as the primary coordinator for the class.
Outside the classroom, Ron was esteemed by his colleagues. Weekly faculty meetings highlighted the respectful relationship between Ron and his peers.
“When we needed some input, we called on Ron Nelson,” Juffer said. “And he would share his views in a very non-dogmatic way.”
According to Rev. Jerry Sitser, the former NW chaplain, in an article published in the Des Moines Register in 1985, “(Nelson) was a searcher for truth. He would accumulate and accumulate and think and think and then come up with one or two things that were utterly brilliant.”
Despite his academic proficiency, Ron was reserved.
“He was real humble and quiet and oftentimes perceived as distant,” Roger said. “He wasn’t very popular; students didn’t get him. Nothing about him was charismatic or leading.”
“He was so cerebral that he wasn’t this outgoing kind of guy,” said Van Oort, who got to know Ron by rooming with Roger at NW in the 1980s. “He was pretty introverted, not an in-your-face with all kinds of loves and kudos. That wasn’t his style.”
His relationships with fellow professors, however, were caring and optimistic.
“He had a lot of colleagues he loved and respected and a bunch of younger colleagues that he was really excited about,” Roger said. “He had great hope for the younger and newer professors.”
Ron also had great hope in social justice and war and peace issues in the last five to 10 years of his life, according to Roger.
“He became very involved, beyond the books, into mercy and justice initiatives,” Roger said. “He understood the gospels to be about that.”
A Korean War veteran, Ron did not tolerate violence in any form. Some called him a pacifist, while others weren’t so keen on the word. But no one could understand the shattering of peaceful and intellectual Ron, especially Van Oort. “I would say the most amazing thing in my mind is the irony that a guy who was a pacifist was murdered.”
The Parking Lot
Roger, following graduation from NW in 1983, attended seminary became invested in an African-American church ministry on the south side of Chicago. The 1980 Roseland Christian Ministries was located on the corner of 108th and Michigan Avenue in an area being ravaged by a cocaine epidemic. According to Roger, “900 people (were) murdered a year, and it was all related to cocaine.”
In March of 1985, Ron and his wife Marian had travelled to Chicago during spring break to visit Roger and the ministry he was supporting. The trio, along with Roger’s fiancé, attended the Roseland Church service on St. Patrick’s Day morning. According to the Des Moines Register article published a week later, everyone in the church was excited to see the older Nelsons again. Roger was well-loved in the area ministry, and his family’s support of his work endeared Ron and Marian to the congregation as well.
Following the service, the Nelsons walked out into the parking lot at the same time as 34-year-old Clarence Hayes, a cocaine addict. According to Roger, he had just attempted to hold up a liquor store. He was headed home when he cut through the lot. He needed cash. He had a gun.
After forcing the family into their vehicle, Hayes demanded money and alternated between sticking his gun into Roger’s neck and Ron’s side. Even after getting all of the Nelsons’ money, it wasn’t enough.
“I was the only one who talked to him; I don’t remember anyone saying anything else,” Roger said. “He kept saying we were holding back on him and weren’t giving him everything.”
According to a Chicago Tribune article, “witnesses said the robber fired his gun because he apparently was dissatisfied with the amount of money carried by Nelson and the other robbery victims.”
Hayes fled the parking lot. Roger leapt from the back seat and ran into the church to contact police and medical services. In the front seat, Ron slumped over into his wife’s lap and, according to Roger, “basically died in my mom’s lap.”
“I’m at Central (College) — there weren’t cell phones at the time — and here’s my friend whose father has just been murdered, and I can’t talk to him,” Van Oort said. “This was Sunday night. It happened on a Sunday afternoon.”
The murder made national news. The story was plastered on newspapers, and the headlines shouted the injustice of it all.
“Iowan slain by robber in Chicago church lot.”
“Iowa professor’s killer sought.”
“Orange City ponders high price man of peace paid to live up to ideals.”
One more murder in Chicago wasn’t anything notable. According to the Disaster Center website, there were 58,446 reports of violent crime in 1985. But to the people in Orange City, it was overwhelming.
“All the students were stunned, and all the faculty and staff were stunned,” said Van Oort. “What do you do now? What do you say? How do you make sense of this?”
“It was devastating to the whole community,” Juffer said.
For the family, it was understandably even harder.
“My first impression — a thinking, a feeling — was that we had stepped into the pool of the victims of gun violence, and it was a big pool,” Roger said.
For Roger, the week following his father’s death was a blur. He recalled making it back out to Iowa, but many of the specifics remain in a faded haze.
Some moments, however, are sharper.
“I had a group of friends from seminary that drove out from Michigan,” Roger said. “My only and clearest memory is having dinner with those guys after the funeral. Means the world to me. Harlan (Van Oort) was there.”
“The four guys picked me up and we drove to Orange City and we drove up to (Trinity Reformed Church), and that was the first time we saw Roger,” Van Oort said. “First time we talked to him was walking up to the funeral because that’s how communication went.”
Along with having his friends near, Roger also remembers a large Greyhound bus full of passengers who wanted to be there for the family.
According to the 1985 Des Moines Register article, “…several black men and women from Chicago …had traveled 10 hours on a chartered bus to attend the services.”
The pastor who had married Ron and Marian years ago officiated the final farewell. The church was full of friends and family wanting to remember the man who had staunchly lived for his ideals. Along with a packed house, notes and letters were pouring in about Ron and his legacy.
Van Oort remembers one note in particular that opened up a heavy theological conversation.
“At the funeral, (Roger) pulls out of his pocket one and I looked and it was from a friend of Ron’s,” Van Oort said. “Roger doesn’t remember this so maybe I made it up. He pulls it out and scrawled on just one sheet of paper, a note of sympathy and prayers and then this quote: There’s a word from God in the violence. And that was about it.”
The theological weight of saying goodbye to a father, a husband, a professor and a son was complicated. As Christians, the call is to forgive and look to God for solace. But how does one forgive a murderer and still see God working in it?
“(Roger) said this to me in the midst of it: “If the Almighty God was to write down, ‘This was the reason your dad was killed’, I would wad that piece of paper up and throw it back at whoever handed it to me.”” Van Oort said. “I can understand that. There’s no way you could give me a reason for this.”
In a letter sent to friends a week after the murder, Roger wrote of the challenging understanding of God’s presence amongst the pain of saying goodbye.
“We live in shock, and know that the reasons for all of this will never be ours to hold. We know the violent ugliness of evil and sin. Our hope is in the redeeming action of God. Someday we will again see my father.”
In the 1985 Des Moines Register article published one week after the murder, Don Lindskoog, a former NW psychology professor, said, “We’re still reeling around here. We have difficulty understanding and computing it.”
To those outside the community, it was another murder victim from Chicago. But to the family, it was saying farewell to a father of two sons and a husband. To the college, it was a loss of a colleague and a man of esteem. It was mourning a man who prized ideals and sought to bring peace to the world.
Clarence Hayes was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for a crime that was, according to a 1985 Chicago Tribune article, “cruel, deliberate, intentional and most despicable of all, indifferent.” However, the Nelsons sought to honor Ron’s ideals.
“At our request, the death penalty was overturned,” Roger said.
NW also found ways to honor Ron, and those still exist today. A scholarship exists in his name to award students who combine their scholarship with social justice. His name also graces the chapel schedules. The Nelsons are grateful for the efforts of the college to retain Ron’s legacy.
“I really appreciate people like Harlan that have thought it important to keep the story as a part of NW life,” Roger said.
Van Oort makes sure the student who is awarded the scholarship knows the weight of the name behind the money.
“If I find out who received it, I usually want to tell them, ‘You have the Nelson scholarship. Do you know what that means?’” Van Oort said. “He was a great guy.”
His life was shorter than it needed to be, but he left his mark on each person he touched, whether it was a student in class, a fellow professor or a friend on the street. His legacy exists beyond the circumstances surrounding his death.
The grave marker is still tucked away in a corner of the cemetery, hidden in a row of flat stones. The parking lot in Chicago still gets used, twice as much on Sundays. The line of text on the chapel schedule is still typed out every semester. And Ron Nelson’s life and work will not fade.