Farewell Dad -- A Son's Tribute to Ken Nelson, Longtime L.A. Commercial Artist
By Scott Nelson
from Aliso Viejo,CA
Farewell Dad – A Son’s Tribute to Kenneth Richard Nelson, Longtime L.A. Commercial Artist
(Born April 6, 1927 – Died February 27, 2006)
You could call my dad a lot of things – and some people did – but you could never call him boring, predictable or easy. A man of contradictions, he lived his way and died his way – give or take – without much fanfare. He wanted it that way.
Born in Chicago of Danish and Irish heritage, he came from a modest, loving family with few claims to fame – save an uncle, Chris Nelson, who invented the Eskimo Pie and, with it, the process for sticking chocolate to ice cream. The city of broad shoulders, with its tough-guy, root-for-the-underdog mentality never left him.
He served in Austria at the close of World War II, and was kicked from a moving train by an SS officer in drag trying to sneak back home. Fortunately, only his pride was hurt and he walked the five miles to the rail station. Though he never returned to that country, he always remembered its beauty. And he never forgot his Army buddies or the countless servicemen who didn’t come home from Europe or the Pacific. He cried about that every Veteran’s Day – and many days and night in between -- until the end.
After the war, he became a talented commercial artist, working for a time for the well-known Foote Cone & Belding agency in Chicago and teaching night school art classes at Northwestern University.
In the 1950s he moved to Los Angeles, where he was a paste-up artist for the L.A. Herald-Examiner, an ad agency graphic artist, art director for Marvin Electric in Wilmington, and purveyor of his own business, Pieces of Art. He worked many late nights in his home studio so his family could live a comfortable, middle-class life. His body of work (done manually, before computer graphics) included a flowing logo for Airstream trailers, some early involvement with the Charlie the Tuna character, countless product catalogues and ad layouts, and over a half century of personalized greeting cards and drawings that became his hobby.
He spent many years living and working in the Highland Park, Eagle Rock and Glendale areas in and around northeast Los Angeles. He enjoyed Casa Bianca pizza on Colorado Blvd., the old Thistle Inn on Los Feliz (where Tony and Cheryl played) and the Henry’s “Chicken in the Rough” restaurants in Glendale and Eagle Rock that have long since disappeared.
He had a dry, offbeat, sometimes edgy sense of humor. And he showed flashes of brilliance. Told at work that a large L.A.-area cemetery chain needed a new slogan, he offered wryly, “Just Call Us, We’ll Take Care of the Rest.” Back then, it would have seemed tasteless; today it might work. Whether he was kidding or not, he was often ahead of his time – though no one knew how far.
A staunch individualist, he stood up for what he believed in, and he didn’t let others tread on him. Consequently, he was an occasional brawler (once in a bowling alley), back when some men settled disputes with their fists. He would later say this probably wasn’t the right approach, but he probably wouldn’t have done it differently either.
He was an original anti-authoritarian, anti-affluence guy, but a lifelong Republican. He could be America’s biggest fan and its sharpest critic, as evidenced by the hundreds of political cartoons he left behind on cards and napkins. He poked fun at everything and everyone, though his messages weren’t always clearly understood by anyone but himself. In the area of political satire, many remarked, he may have missed his calling.
His most productive years seemed to be the 1940s through early ‘70s, though he found intermittent periods of inspiration and satisfaction later on.
He loved big band music from the likes of Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw, as well as classical music and, once in a great while, opera. Occasionally, when he drank, he played his own music in the form of taps on the bugle on the back porch in Highland Park – much to the neighbors’ dismay.
Among his favorite movies were “Gunga Dihn,” “Charge of the Light Brigade” and “Robin Hood,” which dazzled him as a boy. Years later, he would wake his own young sons when one of these gems came on late night TV, and they have fond memories of watching them with dad. He also took the boys to pizza at midnight and other things that drove their mom crazy.
He was a heck of a bowler -- more of a thrower, actually; not much on style, but the pins went down. The family often bowled together in Glendale and Eagle Rock. And there were family outings to Palm Desert, before it was anything to speak of, and camping trips to Tujunga and, in the early years, Lake Nacimiento.
He drove historic Route 66 several times to and from Chicago, and made a point to take his sons on the journey just before the route officially closed in the late 1970s.
He didn’t discover the TV show Seinfeld until reruns, then laughed at every episode several times (noting that was enough).
He was married three times: to Betty (whereabouts unknown), Rosalind (mother of his sons, now remarried) and Josephine, deeply saddened by his loss but happy for the 20-plus years she had with him and with his memory. She returned to their rural dessert home in Salome, Ariz., after caring for him in the hospital.
In addition to his sons Steve and Scott (together with daughter-in-law Danielle), he is survived by his sister Dorothy (“a good gal”), all of Southern Callifornia, and his brother Bob, of Nevada, and by fond family memories of his late sisters Evelyn and Lori. Another brother died as an infant. Very sadly, he never got to meet his first grandchild, who was due just two months after his passing.
Though he quit smoking in his early 60s, years of the habit – combined with the inhaled paints and solvents from his airbrushing and other manual art work – most likely did him in. His death of COPD a month before his 79th birthday was not an easy way to go.
He died in a hospital near Surprise, Ariz., about an hour from his home. Had he felt better, he might have joked that no one was more surprised about that than him.
His last greeting card, scribbled from his hospital bed a few days before he died, said, “Someone gave me lots of people I should have been nicer to.”
He left the world with little more than he came into it with -- with the conspicuous exceptions of his loving wife; the loving sons to whom he imparted honesty, compassion, independence, respect, a sense of the absurd and knowing right from wrong; his loving sister and daughter-in-law; a pair of loving and loved dogs; and the memories of friends and family scattered here and there who remember the man and his deeds.
Flowers and funerals always reminded him of the somber Irish wakes he attended as a boy with his father. He requested that, upon his death, no service be held, and he donated his body to science. Contributions to the American Cancer Society would be seem appropriate. Remembrances and condolences are welcomed at email@example.com.