North Platte Community College lost one of its pioneers. Virgil Nelson died March 30 at the age of 86.
Nelson was one of the first two instructors hired when the college was formed. He was present when the doors opened Aug. 31, 1965, on what was then the North Platte Junior College.
Nelson grew up on a farm nine miles from Wausa, and graduated from Wausa High School in 1951 with multiple scholarships.
Because of that, his parents urged him to forgo his plans of returning to the family farm in favor of attending college. Nelson enrolled in Luther Junior College in Wahoo, but his stay was short-lived.
“April of 1953 came along, and I got a draft notice saying I was to report for a physical,” Nelson said in an interview years later. “I went and passed. I didn’t bother applying for a deferment, and late that summer I went into the Army. I was in the service one year, 11 months and eight days. The first six months were spent at Camp Chaffee in Arkansas — then it was on to Korea.”
Nelson served in Korea from September 1953 to August 1955. His time in the Army made him think about his future and what he wanted to do with his life. The GI Bill made postsecondary education easier than ever.
“I got $110 per month, and it was tax-free,” said Nelson. “Back then, that was quite adequate. It took care of room and board and books. I even had a little left over for gas.”
Nelson began taking classes at Wayne State College at Wayne in September 1955, majoring in math and physical science.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” said Nelson. “There weren’t many going into math at that point. It was a good move because if you had a degree in math and wanted to teach, you could just about pick any state, and there was a vacancy.”
Nelson graduated in 1957. He was planning to pursue his education further because the GI Bill was still available, but those plans got put on hold when he received a call from a superintendent at the Arcadia Public Schools.
“They needed a math teacher, and I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Well, the next night the superintendent called back, claiming he couldn’t find anyone else to fill the position,” Nelson said. “I told him I would come out and look. Arcadia had about 420 people at the time, and a real nice school building. In fact, it was the nicest building in town.”
Nelson accepted the job for that semester, then ended up staying another seven years. He taught math, physics and chemistry at the high school, and took summers sessions at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, Colorado. He earned a master’s degree in mathematics from the university in 1960.
One day, while reading the Omaha World-Herald, Nelson stumbled across an article announcing that a junior college was going to be built in North Platte.
A friend of his, a math teacher at Gothenburg, had applied for a teaching job at the college and was accepted. However, the Gothenburg superintendent left, and because Nelson’s friend also had an administrative degree, the superintendent job was offered to him.
“He asked the administrators at the junior college if he could be released from that job, and they said, ‘If you can find a replacement’,” Nelson said. “So, he gave them my name.”
He taught his first class at the North Platte Junior College in 1965 and stayed for 31 years.
“Naturally, the school grew over time,” Nelson said. “We started out in the old federal building downtown, then moved to South Campus when the McDonald-Belton Building was constructed in the mid-’70s. It was also in the ’70s that a law was passed merging technical schools with academic colleges. As a result, we all came under one umbrella.”
The merger was the start of the Mid-Plains Community College Area. McCook Junior College, the state’s oldest two-year college, North Platte Junior College and the Mid-Plains Vocational Technical School, were combined.
Campus expansions and a restructuring of the system weren’t the only changes Nelson witnessed over the years. Technology also evolved tremendously.
“The biggest advancement I saw was in the use of computers,” Nelson said. “When I started at the college, the computer was in its infancy. The tech campus got a computer in 1970. I got a little experience with it then taught computer programming alongside math for about five years. By the late ’80s, every office had a personal computer.”
Marilyn McGahan, former NPCC vice president, worked with Nelson as a fellow instructor up until Nelson’s retirement in 1996.
“As an instructor, Virgil was exceptional,” McGahan said. “His personal standards were high, and he expected the same of his students and his fellow instructors. Over the years, he mentored many new faculty members. He did more than teach — he loved the college and was involved in many committees, projects and activities throughout his entire career at NPCC.”
Perhaps it was Nelson’s personality, however, that made him the most endearing.
“No one could tell stories like Virgil — hilariously funny, very descriptive, yet never making fun of anyone,” McGahan said. “He made us laugh.”
Ron Axtell, the college’s former director of physical resources, has similar memories of Nelson. He and Nelson were neighbors.
“Virgil was personable, friendly and always had a story to tell,” Axtell said. “He was always out tending to his garden. He liked to keep busy.”
Carol Aten was neighbors with Nelson, too, and her husband worked with him at the college. Her fondest memories of Nelson are also of him in his garden and of the stories he told.
“He always had lots of stories. Sometimes they were the same stories,” Aten said with a laugh. “Virgil was just a farmer at heart. He would come around every fall with tomatoes and would say, ‘If you don’t take these, I’m going to go out and throw them at cars.’ It was the same thing every year. Two days before he went into the hospital, he knocked on my back door and had a question about trimming trees. He was getting ready for spring and planting season.”
Additional memories of Nelson can be found at carpentermemorial.com. A celebration of life service will be scheduled at a later date. Memorials are suggested to the North Platte Community College Foundation.