MACHIAS, Maine — Norman Nelson, 92, a war hero and statesman who dedicated his life to community service, died Tuesday after a short illness. He is being called “an irreplaceable spirit” by those who knew him.
Nelson and his late wife, Nancy, raised two sons in Roque Bluffs, where for more than 30 years he served either as selectman, school board member or planning board member. He represented Washington County in the state House of Representatives from 1975 to 1980, followed by a four-year term as a Washington County commissioner.
“Norman Nelson was a Washington County icon, whose lifetime was devoted to serving his nation, his state and his community,” Maine Senate President Kevin Raye of Eastport said Wednesday. “Norm was serious about his public service, but he also knew how to have fun. For more than a quarter of a century, he co-chaired the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival, of which his annual appearance headlining the Blueberry Blues theatrical production was always a highlight. Karen and I join with Norm’s family and friends in mourning his passing, but celebrating that his spirit will live on through the many lives he touched during his lifetime.”
Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said Nelson had the experience and ability to “make history walk off the page.”
As a boy of just 13, Nelson sailed on wooden-masted cargo vessels, carrying lumber, coal and granite; at 26, he stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day; and, once he returned home Down East, dedicated his life to community service and volunteerism.
Nelson was still serving as a Machias selectman up until his death and possibly was the oldest elected official in Maine. He often brought a lighter side to town meetings with his infectious, quick sense of humor.
“He was one of the most interesting men I ever met,” Laural Robinson of Machias said Wednesday. “He did just about everything, from landing at Normandy to being a police constable to hanging wallpaper. There are a million stories about Norm. We’ve lost a real treasure.”
Nelson was a ham radio operator, a member of the University of Maine at Machias Ukulele Band, and he coordinated the annual pie-eating contest at the Wild Blueberry Festival. He also was a member of the Down River Theater Company and always had a lead role in the Blueberry Festival’s annual play.
A lifelong Democrat, Nelson had nearly perfect attendance at the Maine Democratic Party committee meetings in Augusta for more than 30 years. “He was very proud of that,” said Katherine Cassidy of Machias.
As a Machias selectman, Nelson had the ability to cut through the emotionalism of an issue and focus on the real heart of the matter, Fitzgerald said. She recalled that he often used his hearing difficulties as an excuse to force people to repeat what they said. “Sometimes that highlighted the shallowness of what was being said,” Fitzgerald said, “and he was able to head off some extremism.”
Nelson was an encyclopedia of information on Machias area history — some of which he actually lived. He often entertained at local gatherings with stories of sailing on the Lucy Evelyn, the last sailing vessel to leave the Machias area; log drives on the Machias River; and storming the beaches at Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
It was on his way across the Atlantic to that monumental battle, when the other soldiers learned he already had been to sea, that he earned his nickname “Salty.”
In May of this year, he shared with the Quoddy Tides of Eastport some of his memories of serving as a heavy machine gunner and squad leader during the war.
“Getting ashore on D-Day was bad,” he was quoted as saying. “We lost all our weapons and tripods. They were so heavy, they sank in 10 feet of water. It seemed like forever before I got to shore. It was just hell. I lost most of my company on the beach.
“After an experience like that you try to live the best life you can,” he said.
According to Nelson’s son, Sandy Nelson of Roque Bluffs, funeral arrangements had not yet been determined.