I’m always looking for role models, and now I have a shiny new one: O. Fred Nelson, the former Kenosha Water Utility general manager.

That title makes Nelson sound like any other municipal employee, but he’s a local legend.

When I first started here at the Kenosha News — way, way back in the late 1980s — Nelson was already a legend.

In the ensuing decades, his legacy has only grown.

He was back at his old stomping grounds (the water utility’s production plant on Simmons Island, which bears his name) last Friday to celebrate his 90th birthday.

Nelson headed our local water utility for 42 years, retiring 17 years ago at age 73. During that time — and since — our water utility has been a source of pride, for its employees and for our community in general.

A lot of that is due to Nelson, who set the tone.

“He created who we are,” said Ed St. Peter, Nelson’s successor, who put in his own 48 years with the water utility. “He has set a culture — one of caring about your job. What we do here (at the plant) is critical to the city of Kenosha.”

At the celebration, Nelson spoke to the crowd, saying, “Kenosha is one of the best. It’s the people we have. That’s what makes it great and always has. To me, that’s always been the most important thing about the utility — the people.”

That’s a great sentiment and a great testament to Nelson and to everyone at our local utility.

It’s also no doubt why more than 100 people showed up to honor Nelson, who said, “It feels great to be 90 years old.”

If I’m lucky to live that long, I hope to feel the same way.

Nelson set the bar for longevity at the utility, where St. Peter officially retired on July 1, though he’s staying on through December to help incoming general manager Curtis Czarnecki.

Czarnecki has a lot to live up to, but he’s got plenty of time. He was hired by the water utility in December 2008, meaning he only has another four decades to go. Keep that streak alive, Curtis!

O, what’s in a name?

Seeing Nelson in the news again reminded me that when he retired in 2002, one of our reporters went to that farewell celebration.

When he returned to the newsroom, he bragged about finally discovering what the “O” in O. Fred Nelson stands for but he swore not to tell any of us unless we guessed.

I’m pretty sure we ran through all the “O” names we could think of and then some — Otis? Oscar? Ollie? Oswald? Orville? Owen? Olaf? Octavian? — but we never did learn Nelson’s first name.

All these years later, the mystery still haunts me. So I’m asking Nelson, if he’s reading this: Please call me here at the paper or email me with your secret first name. I’m hoping it’s something fantastic, and I promise not to tell anyone.

Water, water everywhere

With our local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun this week, the importance of water in our lives looms large.

It reminds me just how lucky we are to have a first-rate water utility.

When I visited the utility in June 2017 — to promote an open house and tours of the facility — I learned that Kenosha’s utility installed an award-winning energy optimization system, a three-year, $11 million project.

Talking with general manager St. Peter and Melissa Arnot, the director of operations, it was clear they have a passion for clean water. And, really, shouldn’t everyone?

Actually, St. Peter and the other water utility staffers hope we care about clean water but don’t have to dwell on it.

“Our goal is that you don’t think about water,” St. Peter said. “You just turn on the tap, and you know it’s clean water. But we think about it 24 hours a day.”

While I remind everyone to stay hydrated and safe during this heat wave, here are some reasons why our water is so great:

The source: Lake Michigan.

The treatment process: Arnot describes the process as “a biological treatment, using micro-organisms to break down the waste” instead of a lot of chemicals.

It’s fresh: We are drinking water that was in the lake no more than four days ago, St. Peter said. In contrast, bottled water in stores can sit on a shelf for two years.

“I don’t want to drink water that’s been sitting for two years,” he said, adding “you can refill a 20-ounce bottle of water more than 2,000 times for $1” using Kenosha water.

The bottom line: “It takes a lot of people to make this process work,” St. Peter said.

The bottom line II: The Kenosha Water Utility is a huge facility, and it’s run efficiently, giving local customers a good bang for their bucks. Arnot said “94 percent of all water utilities in the U.S. have higher rates than we do.”

The bottom line III: Drink up! Our local municipal water is safe and fresh, and it’s important to drink plenty of fluids. Bonus: Zero calories!

Have a comment? Email Liz at esnyder@kenoshanews.com or call her at 262-656-6271.