Robert Nelson also won 20 years ago in 1990. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Robert Nelson also won 20 years ago in 1990. (The Daily News/John Eby)

Archived Story

Robert Nelson Fireman of Year

Published 8:35am Friday, April 23, 2010

Dowagiac Daily News

Lt. Robert Nelson’s passion for firefighting started as a boy riding in a red Radio Flyer.

He and Capt. Guy Evans responded to fire calls until the wagon flipped over, then it “became an ambulance,” Evans laughed Thursday night after Nelson accepted his second Fireman of the Year, like bookends 20 years apart which put him even with his brother.

Nelson, a 1982 Union High School graduate, first joined the fire department in 1985.
He was selected by a vote of the entire department, including fulltime and part-time firefighters for the 2009 trophy.

“I left in 2001,” he recalled. “I went out on the road building Taco Bells and remodeling restaurants. I was in the Kansas City area for a while,” but left fire service until returning to Dowagiac eight years later.

While he didn’t build Dowagiac’s Taco Bell, “The company I worked for did.”

He recently rehabbed a house on Center Street.

“I remodel a house every couple of years,” he said. “I still do remodeling and construction. For three years, we put Subways in Walmarts – 40 or 50. I poured concrete today down in Edwardsburg.”

Instead of a $2 million fire station, Dowagiac last October dedicated a longtime goal for a fraction of that – $165,000 – on Wolf Street, behind the youth soccer fields in Northwest Park.

“We’re taking down the (1962) fire station (demolished in November) and we won’t have to spend money heating it and maintaining it. And, because we no longer have to spend money buying custom-built equipment, we can pay for this new facility in less than three years,” Mayor Donald Lyons said at the time. “This facility is the work of a number of people with vision, people who put sweat equity into it and people who were persistent.”

During Lyons’ 12 years as mayor, Second Ward Councilman Bob Schuur “has been advocating for a new fire department. One of the first things Bob said to me when I came on was we needed a new fire station, and I couldn’t help but agree with him. The old fire station was not adequate. But I also know a new fire station would cost upward of $2 million. I just knew we could not justify that within our budget, that no matter what the need was, we were going to have to work around the old facility.”

Nelson was singled out at the dedication for devoting more than 1,000 hours, which he modestly deflects.

“I always tell people that if wasn’t for the cancer, Don Coy would have had a lot more hours than me,” Nelson said. “Don retired and came back because Don really loved that project. We’d meet at Wahoo in the morning three times a week to go work on it and if I’d get there five minutes late, he was already gone and working.”

They made an August fishing trip to Canada, weeks before Don’s cancer diagnosis.

A firefighting family farewell filled Yazel and Clark Chapel when Lt. Coy’s colleagues saluted his 33-year career as a Dowagiac firefighter.

Lt. Coy retired in 1998, then returned in 2007 as a volunteer. He was 67 when he died on New Year’s Day.

Nelson’s brother Billy also won two trophies, but he was working, as was 25-year recipient Capt. Mike Mattix.

Billy joined the department in 1992 and won in 1995 and in 2002.

Department of Public Safety Director Tom Atkinson also presented service citations to Brian Townsend, five years; Capt. Guy Evans, 15 years; Capt. Mike Mattix, 25 years; Deputy Chief Dale Hutchings, 30 years; and “Father Time” Terry Dodd, 35 years.
Nelson, 45, is looking forward to Oct. 10, when he will marry a Chicago woman he’s been dating for more than three years. “She likes Dowagiac,” he said.

Nelson’s certifications include Fire Officer I, Firefighter II, hazardous materials awareness in operations, apparatus pump operator, vehicle extrication, rapid intervention team, Amtrak passenger train emergency response, confined space rescue, ice and cold water rescue and scuba diving. Nelson has completed FEMA national incident management courses at levels 100, 200, 300, 400, 700, 800 and incident command.
“He’s a hardworking, dedicated firefighter,” new Master of Ceremonies Nick Barnes from Wolverine said.

“His willingness to always be one of the first to step forward and pitch in, from the toughest to the simplest of tasks, earned him recognition as a leader within the department. He was instrumental in the construction of the new fire department building, putting in countless hours. He maintains a high attendance record of fire calls, regardless of the time of day or night.”

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