In memory of Dennis Nelson
By Blake Sperling
There are some people who were born solely for the purpose of impacting the lives of others. Those who think selflessly and acquire fulfillment from attributing to others success and accomplishments.
These rare kinds of individuals will never fully understand the magnitude and significance their existence had on this earth once they are gone.
You could say the world would be a better place with more people like them, but the world is already a better place because of them.
On Dec. 19, 2017, the world lost Dennis Nelson, also known as Mr./Dr. Nelson, to the many students who encountered his presence. A service in his memory was held on Saturday, Jan. 27 at Asbury United Methodist Church in Livermore.
As a member of our LPC family, Dr. Nelson taught at Las Positas part-time for over twenty years and was unable to finish out the Fall 2017 semester due to his battle with fatal lung disease.
Dennis Nelson was a tutor and instructor in the mathematics department and was known especially for his witty and dry sense of humor.
Whether he was cracking a joke in class to lighten the mood or to brighten someone’s day, he always seemed to take joy in creating a light atmosphere for those around him.
“He was quick to smile, tell a joke with a mischievous humor twinkling in his eyes,” said Kristine Woods, who is the Math Jam and STEM coordinator of HSI here at Las Positas. Kristine spoke on his passion for teaching as she adds “Dr. Nelson was a dedicated instructor, quick to volunteer to teach any math class, at any level. He was known to hold many study sessions for students – in the library, at the tables in 2100 or even in his basement in the weeks before finals.”
Many students and faculty admired Dr. Nelson for his ethics as an instructor, tutor and individual. Sara Aarestad, an early childhood education major who took Dr. Nelson’s elementary algebra class during the Spring 2017 semester, says “he graded and wrote comments on every single paper we turned in”.
Not only did he teach her algebraic expressions, and how to graph, but he also left something with her that she will always use as she moves through her life. Sara adds “What he taught me was…even though something might look impossible, it really isn’t. When you put your mind to it, you can achieve great things if you keep trying”.
His success as a teacher started early on as he was tenured during his first year of professorship at the University of Nebraska in 1963, just three years after graduating with the highest honors.
He received his masters in engineering from the same university and was then recruited by the Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore in 1966, where he worked for 33 years testing and designing weapons and engineering systems with primary focus around the areas of mechanical vibration and shock.
He was crucial in the development of random vibration testing and a respected authority in the extent of waveform synthesis for shock testing on shakers.
Beyond his accomplishments of his professional career, Nelson’s greatest work came as a husband and a father. Attempting to give his family the best life he could, he juggled working and completing his PhD, while still finding time to raise his three children and three step children. Teaching them things from the keys of a piano, to the constellations of the sky, “He always had me looking up,” said his daughter Valerie Nelson.
She explained that he’d always used to tell her “Look up, Valerie, Look up. That’s where we come from.”
This, amongst other things, was her greatest memory of her father. A warm, intuitive man, that could inspire wonder in the minds of anyone he came across. “He made us believe in the magic of life,” she added.
Dennis Nelson was the type of father that toured the United States with his family in a station wagon and volunteered to take all the neighborhood kids down to the local community pool. Besides his abilities in mathematics, he was an avid poet and a natural at every sport he played.
Most importantly, he was dedicated to his responsibilities and to helping others. “He never took a day off” Valerie says.
14 years ago, Dr. Nelson received the news that he had 5 years to live. His family did not discover this diagnosis until right before he passed.
Through exercising and a healthy diet, he outlived this prediction times three. He was too tough and proud to allow this kind of news dictate the course of his life, so he took action into his own hands.
It’s inspiring that through his health issues that he still had such a strong desire to continue teaching. I asked his daughter Valerie why after so many years of being retired did he still want to teach? She responded, “because he wanted to help people learn. He did what he loved till the day he died”.