As he looked out at the crowd and met one-on-one with many of the attendees, O. Fred Nelson said he was overcome with joy.
Nelson, the longtime general manager of the Kenosha Water Utility, was honored Friday for an important milestone at an all-too-familiar venue — the production plant on Simmons Island he was instrumental in constructing.
“It’s just wonderful to have everyone here,” said Nelson, referring to family, friends and past and present utility employees. “It feels great to be 90 years old.”
Nelson, who was the Kenosha Water Utility’s general manager for 42 years, retired 17 years ago, at age 73. But his influence has remained throughout the walls of the facility and its ancillary operations in the more than decade-and-a-half since he officially stepped down.
“It sure was great,” Nelson said as he spoke with a reporter of his 42 years of employ at the Kenosha utility, all of them as general manager. “I enjoyed every single year of it. We always had really wonderful employees. It really was a pleasure working here.”
More than 100 people showed up to the celebration to honor Nelson as he reached his 90th birthday. The lobby area was filled with assorted memorabilia, including old photographs and newspaper clippings that highlighted Nelson’s career in Kenosha.
A Kenosha News article on prominent display from 1960 served as a visible demonstration of how influential Nelson was to the city at a turning point.
The article’s headline read, “Big Expansion of Water Works Nelson’s Plan.” The opening paragraph in the article, written by Jim Kornkven, described Nelson as “an intense young engineer” as it outlined his plans for the utility.
Ed St. Peter, who was Nelson’s successor and continues serve as general manager of the Kenosha Water Utility, said it was only fitting everyone gather at the plant to celebrate Nelson’s milestone.
“He created who we are,” St. Peter said of Nelson.
When he retired in 2002, Nelson put in an even 50 years in the industry — his first eight being in St. Louis. Nelson was noted for his leadership role in 1960, in part because he was a mere 30 years old when he helmed operations.
“That’s just unheard of,” St. Peter said, particularly in terms of Nelson’s longevity in the role in Kenosha. “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.”
Visitors to Simmons Island likely have noted Nelson’s name since it is displayed on the plant facility as a nod to his influential role in having the building constructed.
“But it’s not just the buildings,” St. Peter said. “He created a legacy, and it’s more than just a name on a building.”
While it was bittersweet, Nelson said he stepped down as the plant’s general manager in 2002 with confidence in the people overseeing operations.
“Kenosha is one of the best,” Nelson said as he spoke to the crowd. “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.”