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Good Morning. My name is Rebecca and Bill was my stepdad for most of my life.
I would describe Bill as a content person, which may sound kind of odd because he was a bit gruff – rough around the edges, but what I mean is he found his calm and his happiness in pleasantly ordinary things.
A very good day for him might include Church in the morning, followed by an airshow at a military base in the afternoon. The evening would be a nice wind down spent on the deck, BBQing with a couple friends, sipping wine, and playing a game of cards.
Who here had the honor of playing cards with Bill?
He was funny to play cards with because he would sometimes get irritated if you did things wrong…like you dealt in the wrong direction, or if we were playing Hand and Foot and you didn’t line your rows up in numerical order, say you put your 10’s next to the 6’s….He liked order and he was particular about his cards.
Bill also liked technology and gadgets. He was always with a new phone, or drone, or laser razor, or something else fun. He liked the challenge of figuring that stuff out.
He liked Country music, a family gathering, and most of all he liked adventuring around the country in his 5th Wheel with my mom and their dogs by his side. He liked exploring and meeting new friends, or meeting up with old friends on the road. There he would be, again, playing cards with a campfire crackling nearby, his American flag gently dancing with the breeze, sipping sweet wine, watching the sun set so vividly over the dessert.
– Or perhaps it set calmly behind the ocean waves.
– Or lazily through the trees of a high mountain forest.
These were some of Bills favorite places to park the trailer for a few nights…or weeks. And I know they were among the best days of his life.
All of the simple joys were gifts that Bill appreciated. And in a way they draw a sketch about who he was. But just like a wildflower that blooms in the Mojave Desert, there was a quiet perseverance about the way he lived his life.
– He stayed the course with things. He followed through.
Bill’s career with the Department of Defense spanned over 30 years. It started at Mare Island where he was an Officer and part of the first SWAT team there. He moved through the ranks to become a Detective. With his investigation work he solved many cases. He talked to me and my sister Heidi about two in particular, a big arson case and a felony theft case, the latter of which he proudly stated he got figured out by noon – just as he was directed to do.
He became Manager of the West Coast Naval Communications Department then transferred to China Lake. After several years living in the desert he finally retired. His retirement party was held up here in Northern California and friends and family, near and far, came to celebrate him…much like today.
He received numerous awards and accolades throughout his career with the Government, but he was never boastful. However, he took great pride in his work and he felt validated when he received the recognition he’d earned.
His perseverance in his relationships also speaks to the steadfast way he lived his life. He and my mom were married nearly 38 years. Their love was deep and passionate. They navigated the peaks and valleys of marriage by learning together, trusting each other, and always building a deeper understanding of one another.
Bill helped raise 5 children. It’s difficult for me to imagine the monumental responsibility of trying to teach 5 children how to navigate life. As a father figure Bill never pushed his presence into your space. However, if you opened the door and invited him in, the sentiment would touch him very deeply and he may shed a tear or two. He was sensitive that way.
He was a good friend. Many of his friendships lasted decades. He was there for you in your big moments and he did his best to help lift you in your dark moments. He was loyal and he treasured each of you.
Perhaps Bill’s most intimate relationship was the relationship he had with God. This relationship spanned his entire life, and I believe it served as the foundation for his contentment.
Bill wasn’t one to give up on relationships quickly. He thought a lot about the people in his life, and he was humble enough to ask for forgiveness in times he felt he hadn’t measured up. He gave selflessly of himself to the people he loved and I will be forever grateful to him for that.
As Bill was going through the stages of his death, he took with him that same quiet perseverance. He did not surrender quickly. He was optimistic. And he never felt sorry for himself. After bravely facing death and defeating it several times he was finally brought home under hospice care. During these few days and long nights he would say he was ready to go Home. He would say this matter-of-fact like and we knew the weight of his words. He taught us an invaluable lesson in accepting death. And as with all things in his life he stayed the course until the very end.
Bill’s life was important. In many ways it wasn’t an easy life. Of course, life is not easy for any of us. It is filled with joys, hopes, and disappointments, struggles – both internal and external, lessons that lead to awareness and purpose. But we’re all here, together, trying to do the best we can.
And Bill, you did a phenomenal job.
I will be reminded of you when I find myself feeling content, and also in moments when I need to practice perseverance.
I will miss you.
We will remember you, love you, and cherish you for a very long while.
Dave was born nearly 87 years ago in the tiny town of Aurelia, Iowa. He was one of eight children born to Wesley and Esther Nelson. Growing up in a farming community there were plenty of opportunities for Dave to work, and an incredibly strong work ethic was instilled in him from a very early age. Before he was 12-years-old, and while World War II was dominating headlines around the world, Dave and his older brother were working on a local farm picking beans. He would go on to spend many of his teenage summers working and staying on his best friend’s family farm where he bailed hay, planted, harvested, fixed…did whatever was needed on their huge ranch.
He spent a lot of time outside. He wasn’t always working farms though, he also played sports, mainly basketball, he explored the creeks and rivers, and with his curious mind he also had a love for reading. Primarily adventure novels about the American frontier written by Zane Grey. We’re not sure how many of those great books he read and which ones for certain, but it is easy to see why he would later say those stories shaped his life.
The following excerpt is from the 1910 novel, “The Young Forester” by Zane Gray. Here, the main character Ken, is explaining to his little brother Hal, why he wants to go out West and study forestry, the younger brother, Hal says;
“…Ken, the cowboys, and bears, and lions are not all that interest to me. I like what you tell me about forestry. But whoever heard of forestry as a profession?”
“It’s just this way, Hal. The natural resources have got to be conserved, and the Government is trying to enlist intelligent young men in the work – particularly in the department of forestry. I’m not exaggerating when I say the prosperity of this country depends on forestry….”
Dave’s future had been cast.
Just like our young protagonist, Dave would go on to study Forestry in college, and he too would head out West seeking adventure in what would become a very long, and big career serving the forest.
As a college student, he made his way to the last wild frontier, Alaska. He spent a summer there working as a fire aid for the Bureau of Land Management. The following year he made his first jump at smokejumper school in Missoula Montana. Then, in 1958, he spent a season working in New Mexico as a smokejumper with the US Forest Service. The following year he landed in Redding where he spent his last season smokejumping before transitioning into the position of Timber Management Officer on the Mt. Shasta Regional District. Several years later, he would go on to train a new generation of smokejumpers there in Redding. But before that, while living there in Shasta County, Dave met the woman who would become his first wife, Barbara Day, and over the next few years they grew their family of two into a family of four. First with the birth of Bo, then Kent. The family stayed in Redding until Dave landed his dream job, as District Ranger to the Big Bear Regional District on the San Bernadino National Forest.
With Dave’s new position, the family moved down south to Big Bear Lake. What an incredible place to work. Dave had a lot of responsibility over a very large territory and he worked hard, lots of long hours and late nights. A typical day for him might include juggling administrative duties and managing staff, communicating with timber companies, getting out into forest to measure, record, and observe its overall health, he might be needed in some capacity at one of the several warehouses full of vehicles, machinery, equipment, he might spend some time cleaning up after campers, on and on it went….
Until the seasons changed and the forest dried out, well then, there was always a fire to put out on top of everything else.
Although Dave had an incredible work ethic, he also lived a full life outside of work. He was a fun guy, he liked to drink beer and smoke cigars. He might take advantage of his time off by watching his kids play sports, relaxing, or doing something active. He enjoyed snow skiing, water skiing, spending an afternoon on the boat fishing, or hunting. He enjoyed his friendships and socializing, and going on family vacations with their friends like when, for example, they would drive down to Mexico. Or in his later years, camping out with some old firefighter buddies for a few days.
In a healthy forest there is a diversity of trees. Dave’s life was like that too, it was also quite diverse – with lots of interesting twists and turns. Although he loved his life in Big Bear, his work would take him on yet another journey. Back up North this time, he became the Forest Fire Management Officer for Tahoe National Forest. With this new position, Dave finally laid down roots in Nevada City where he would stay for the next 50 years until he passed away.
Several years after Dave settled in Nevada City, he eventually met his second wife, Sherry, who had two children, Pete & Amy. Together, Sherry and Dave would raise the kids to adulthood. All the while Dave was still working hard with his immense responsibilities. Among the positions he held while serving as FMO in the Tahoe National Forest he also supervised the Forest Law Enforcement Program, he served as Area Commander, and Type 1 Incident Commander. He was IC over many massive forest fires throughout his career, but especially down south and during his 20-year tenure in Tahoe National Forest. He had an incomparable knowledge of fire behavior, fire environment, and appropriate fire suppression tactics. He employed a cost-effective approach to fire management, and was always cautious in keeping fire management funds in line. He earned a legendary reputation in fire communities throughout the United States and he was a respected mentor to those coming up in the fire organization.
And after several decades of service, Dave finally retired from the US Forest Service. Of course, for Dave, retirement wasn’t even close to the end. It was simply the beginning of yet another career. He became a Wildland Fire Management Consultant, and then along with some other restless and retired firefighters, they became part of FEMA’s disaster response team. Dave headed up disaster response in many, many places including tiny islands of Guam. But perhaps his largest tasks with FEMA were when he worked Incident Command for just about half the state of Mississippi after near total devastation during hurricane Katrina, or when he spent time in D.C. helping to shape disaster response from a legislative point.
I mentioned earlier that diversity is a sign of health in a forest. A healthy forest also has many dominant trees, or “Mother Trees”. These are the oldest and biggest trees in the forest. They are also the most connected trees in the forest, as they pass down knowledge and nutrients to understory seedlings, increasing their chances for survival. They do this via their complex root systems. Like a dominant tree in the forest, Dave’s career was larger than life, huge. His wisdom and knowledge taught many, many who came after him.
But perhaps a lesser-known fact is that he was also a giant in his personal life.
He was a good friend to a lot of people. For example, for years he would get together with a bunch of retired and ornery fire guys and foresters and they would hang out at Topaz Lake for a bit in the summer – playing poker, drinking beer, fishing, laughing and reminiscing. Or, during snow season four or five of them might cram into the family condo in Snowbird for a few days of cards and skiing.
Dave also was a good brother. He kept up with his siblings, and took an interest in their lives. He looked out for them and made a point to get to the big family reunion held every few years back in Iowa at Cass Lake. He loved to travel with them as well. Over the last 10 years they went on many cruises together to fun and interesting places – the Panama Canal, Tierra Del Fuego, and the Baltic Sea among them.
And Dave was a really amazing dad. He was solid. He taught his kids to think critically, he taught them how to prepare for life by spending wisely, working hard, earning, and living honestly. He didn’t take short cuts and he taught his kids the same. Be honest, do the right thing. He gave them the very precious gift of stability and he was a giant, a hero.
I opened with a reading from “The Young Forester”, and here is how it concludes, upon his departure Ken says;
“My friends bade me good-bye as if they expected to see me the next day, and I said good-bye calmly. I had my part to play. My short stay with them had made me somehow different.”
We thank you Dave, for the difference you made, the gifts you brought, and the lessons you were here to teach. We thank you for leaving this world better than you found it. We are different because of you, and we thank you.