David T. Nelson ’49, professor emeritus of physics, dies at age 82

 Jan. 1, 2010

David T. Nelson ’49, professor emeritus of physics, died Tuesday, Dec. 27.

Funeral Notice: Memorial Services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 5, at First Lutheran Church in Decorah by Rev. Steven M. Jacobsen with inurnment in Lutheran Cemetery in the spring of 2010. Visitation will be from 4-7 p.m. Monday, January 4 at Fjelstul Funeral Home in Decorah. Friends may sign David’s guest book or send condolences online at www.fjelstul.com

David T. Nelson

David Torrison Nelson was born May 16, 1927, in Decorah, Iowa, the son of David Theodore and Esther Caroline (Torrison) Nelson. He attended Decorah Schools, where he was a boy scout, a tuba player in band, and active in sports, graduating in 1945.

David attended Luther College, majoring in mathematics and physics; he received his B.A. in 1949. While at Luther, David lettered in basketball, playing center on the 1948-49 conference championship team. He obtained an M.S. degree in physics from the University of Rochester (New York) and joined the physics faculty at Luther in January 1954.

David was united in marriage to Betty Jane Rikansrud on April 20, 1957, at First Lutheran Church in Decorah. They were blessed with four children: Elise, Andrea, Kathryn, and Stephen.

In the fall of 1957, David took a leave of absence from teaching at Luther to continue his studies at Iowa State University, receiving his Ph.D. degree in experimental solid state physics in 1960. The family returned to Decorah, where David continued to teach at Luther until his retirement in 1992. In addition to mentoring physics students, he reached scores of students through his popular non-major courses such as astronomy and acoustics of music. His research ranged from summer research with his students at the Ames laboratory of the Atomic Energy Commission on magnetic breakdown in metal single crystals to sabbatical leaves at Arizona State University studying solar collection cells and other energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

David coached the Luther cross country team from 1956-64, and his 1961 Norse team won the first Iowa Conference cross country championship. He continued his involvement in intercollegiate athletics as an official timer at hundreds of track and swim meets, as a member and chair of the college’s faculty athletic committee, and represented Luther on Iowa Conference and NCAA governing committees.

David served as Luther’s director of intercollegiate athletics from 1988-92. He supervised the construction and renovation project of the Luther Field House to create the Regents Center and guided the athletic department through its expansion to 19 intercollegiate sports programs in NCAA Division III competition.

During his years at Luther, David also served as advisor for the Luther College Amateur Radio Club, conducted many planetarium shows, and supervised the college observatory.

David was a member of the Society of the Sigma Xi, Phi Kappa Phi, Sigma Pi Sigma, the Iowa Academy of Sciences, the American Association of Physics Teachers, Optical Society of America, and the International Solar Energy Society.

David was a lifelong member of First Lutheran Church and former president of the congregation. A Decorah native and committed community leader, David served as city councilman from 1972-74 and as Decorah’s mayor from 1978-90. His leadership in city government work facilitated a 30-year era of business, residential and economic growth and diversification, and he was influential in the city’s expansion and in enhancing the community’s quality of life.

David was instrumental in improving Decorah’s parks and recreation facilities and programs, serving on the Decorah Campground Committee, and was an ardent backer of an unsuccessful initiative in the 1970s for an integrated bike trail system in and around the community. David served as county chair of the Republican Party, on the county compensation board, and on Decorah’s Hotel-Motel Tax Steering Committee. At the state level, he received governor appointments to the Iowa Energy Policy Council, the Science Advisory Council, the Iowa Sesquicentennial Commission, and was a member of the board of trustees of Iowa Legacy 150.

David was a charter member of Nordmanns-Forbundet and was a member of the Board of Trustees of Vesterheim, Norwegian-American Museum from 1987-2006 . He and his wife Betty were Grand Marshals of the Nordic Fest parade in 1983 and Nordic Fest flag recipients in 2002. David received Vesterheim Museum’s Mange Takk Award in 2002 and the Spirit of Luther Award in 2004.

David was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather, a first-rate physicist and teacher, a devotee of the arts and athletics, a theatre and concert goer, a builder of harpsichords, a hiker of the Grand Canyon, an Iditarod “groupie,” a singer with an excellent bass voice, a stalwart member of his church choir and the Luren Singing Society, and an actor with the New Minowa Players.

David died on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009, at Barthell O.E.S. Home in Decorah, Iowa, at the age of 82.

David was preceded in death by his parents, his sister Hannah Elizabeth “Betty” Seegmiller, his brother-in-law Robert Q. “Sig” Seegmiller, his son-in-law Steven David Rattenborg, and a niece, Johanna B. (Seegmiller) Leuenberger.

David is survived by his wife, Betty Rikansrud Nelson of Decorah, his four children: Elise Nelson of Decorah, Andrea Streufert of London, Ontario, Kathryn Rattenborg of Decorah, and Stephen (Beth) Nelson of Big Piney, Wyoming; his eight grandchildren: Kari and Erik Streufert, Brigitte, Heather, Alayna, and Derek Nelson, and Sarah and Rachel Rattenborg; his two brothers John (Arlene) Nelson of Decorah, Iowa and Robert (Jeanne) Nelson of Honolulu, Hawaii; and many nieces and nephews and their families.

Memorials may be given to Luther College, First Lutheran Church, Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum, Barthell O.E.S. Home, Winneshiek Medical Center (WMC) Hospice, or the charity of your choice.

Fjelstul Funeral Home
306 East Water Street
Decorah, IA 52101
[email protected]

(563) 382-5210
Fax (563) 382- 8029

David T. Nelson ’49