Sociology professor Gordon L. Nelson was a DFL activist, an elected city official for decades and served as a state presidential elector in 1980.
He also served eight terms on the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation, which sets the maximum city and park board levies, finally losing a re-election bid in 2005. He also was an aide to U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo for about 25 years.
Nelson, 74, died from stroke complications July 6 in a Minneapolis nursing home, said Lyn Nelson, a friend and former student who was not related.
Lyn Nelson said his friend, who had degrees in political science, divinity and social ethics, was "very into observing society and what makes it tick."
As chairman of the Augsburg College Sociology Department, Nelson personified Augsburg's goal of civic engagement for staff and students, said Garry Hesser, Martin Sabo Professor of Citizenship & Learning.
Nelson spent part of his youth in China, where his parents were missionaries. His first political campaign came in 1954 at age 18, when he supported Hubert Humphrey for U.S. Senate. As a University of Minnesota student he worked with a Minneapolis YMCA program for boys. One of his charges was 10-year-old Wes Skoglund, who later became a state DFL legislator.
"He had a remarkable impact on us," Skoglund recalled. "Gordy was so involved in helping all these little boys go the right direction morally, spiritually and in all ways."
Skoglund reconnected with Nelson when Skoglund was 25. The professor was the first to urge him to run for state representative. Skoglund served from 1976 until he retired in 2006. "He had a big picture mind," Skoglund said. "He was very influential from the 1960s to '80s in Minneapolis politics."
Skoglund said the party honored Nelson's service by naming him Fifth District presidential elector in 1980. That year, Minnesota's 10 electors voted for President Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in the Ronald Reagan landslide.
Nelson was the parliamentarian, or arbiter, of Robert's Rules or Order, at many DFL conventions, said Sandra Colvin Roy, a Minneapolis City Council Member.
"He could always calmly give us the rule. People would stop in the midst of local feuds and accept it," she said. He was sharp and witty and brought "some order and sense to the turbulent discussion amongst hundreds of people."
Nelson was a trusted adviser and friend, said Sabo, who retired from Congress in 2006.
"He was a quiet person with an incredible knowledge of the history of Minneapolis," Sabo said. "He had a deep interest in city government and wanting to make it work."
He is survived by his brothers James, of Jefferson City, Mo., and Roger, of Grand Island, Neb. A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Sept. 11 in Trinity Lutheran Church in the Augsburg College Chapel, 625 22nd Av. S., Minneapolis.