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Charismatic commissioner passes away after year-long cancer battle

'Swede' Nelson

Swede Nelson's legacy may not be what he accomplished in eight years on the Hubbard County board, but in how he dealt with a diagnosis that would have made lesser men afraid, angry or withdrawn.

His indomitable spirit shone through his one-year, almost to the day, battle with pancreatic cancer.

"It was Nov. 14 (2008) when he got the diagnosis," his wife Carol recalled.

Then came the chemotherapy, the intense radiation and the setbacks.

"I told him he was the bravest man I knew," Carol said. "He did everything without complaining."

Swede bounced back, on the golf course, attending public events, maintaining a schedule that would have tired healthy people.

Carol laughed when asked if she had married a charismatic character.

You bet.

Swede delighted in spinning a yarn, sometimes more than once. He often forgot who his audience was and re-told a story or two. Nobody was sure if his tales were full of hot air or the God's truth. They were just good stories so nobody really cared, or pointed out discrepancies in the re-telling.

"Colorful," said longtime friend Vern Massie, Hubbard County Solid Waste Director, who met Swede at the Legion, one of the many organizations Swede was active in.

"We used to say all the things he's done in life, all the jobs he's had, he must be 164. We'll miss him."

But it was Swede's last year that Massie will remember.

"He always kept a positive attitude. He always said he may have lost a battle or two, but he hadn't lost the war," Massie said.

"He was strong-willed. He gave it a good shot."

Both Carol and Massie say Swede lived to serve others.

"He took his job seriously as both a county commissioner and a township officer," Massie said. "He gave it his all."

"From my experience he was good to work with," said assistant Hubbard County coordinator Debbie Thompson. "He appreciated a job well done. He was approachable if I had an issue about something, he'd always listen.

"I have a lot of respect for the way he dealt with what he had to deal with at the end," Thompson said. "He had a really good attitude."

Last summer, during former sheriff Gary Mills' retirement party, Swede, rosy-cheeked and in high spirits, bounced from table to table, glad-handing all the guests as if he was still in office, depending on their votes. He was in his element.

By sheer act of will, he tried to force the stubborn tumor into remission that doctors didn't dare operate on. It was too close to a major blood vessel.

The 74-year-old played golf every moment he could at Eagle View Golf Course, Carol said.

"He played at men's night, we played in the couple's league and on Sundays, we played six against six," she said.

Women versus the men. The women usually won.

"But we had a few stroke advantage," she fessed up.

Carol said when doctors found cancerous fluids in Swede's abdomen during an August checkup, he briefly lost his bravado and "became emotional when the doctors told him he was too sick to do one more chemo," she said. "He was bound and determined to do it."

Even from his bed this past two months, he kept telling Carol he'd rally and get back out on the golf course. He was a decent golfer, she said.

"He was so handy, he could fix anything," Carol said. "He did a multitude of things well.

"It was hard to see him in bed," she said. "He always maintained he was going to get better but he didn't."

Although his tenure on the commission led to some controversy that ultimately led to his unseating in 2006, "he didn't just walk away. He stayed active in so many things that kept him young," Massie said.

Swede continued to follow county politics, even lending his voice to projects and causes he began in office. He was a staunch supporter of the law enforcement center and jail that was approved during his tenure and may have been the issue that caused his defeat.

"He was one of the better board members I've ever worked with," said commissioner Dick Devine. "He was a go-getter, a hard worker, just an all around great guy."

The two men also golfed together. Swede was the better golfer, Devine admitted, except for that one time.

They made a bet before they teed off - loser bought the beer. Devine won the round. "Swede told everyone later, 'You can never play an Irishman when you're playing for beer,'" Devine recalled, laughing.

And if Swede's golf buddies should get a hole-in-one sometime in the future, Swede will probably whisper down from above, "I made that happen. You can thank me later."