Amherst Magazine

imageROBERT E. NELSON, JR. (1936-1992)

The classmate we nicknamed “Nick” Nelson was a true intellectual in the best sense of the word. Nick was a psychology major, but that was not the only discipline at which he excelled. Sophomore year, he won the prize for the best paper in English 21-22. He had a great love of ideas, an alert and provocative mind and was a fascinating talker and sensitive listener.

Had he lived to write an entry for this classbook, which he surely would have done, it might have expanded on themes raised in his letter written for the 25th Reunion in 1983.

“If you ask what I have done with my Amherst education during the past 25 years, I have not become part of the power elite. I have maintained my interest in astronomy, poetry, evolution and zoology. In a world where the latest computer enhanced photograph of the edge of the universe looks like a slide under the electron microscope, and they both resemble a contemporary oil painting, when the extremities of exotic specialties seem to converge, the classical definition of the liberal arts education continues to be relevant. Of course, ‘training and appreciation of the arts and skills necessary for a free man to fully live his life’ now includes computer literacy, but the basic values are intact. The unexamined life is still not worth living. Perhaps that is what success is all about.”

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Nick lived his entire life in St. Louis, except his four years at Amherst and a year at Stanford. He came to Amherst virtually devoid of financial resources. His only extra-curricular activity, to supplement his scholarship, was working in Valentine Hall as many hours as the law allowed. Like nearly everyone else in our class, he joined a fraternity, which he later resigned, after having served as president. Though critical of some aspects of the college, he was very loyal to Amherst.


“The unexamined life is still not worth living. Perhaps that is what success is all about.”

After graduation, Nick moved back to St. Louis. He married Joann in 1970 and had a stepson, Jack. Graduate study in American history at Stanford and Washington University yielded an MA and a position teaching history at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Lacking the PhD union card, however, he never achieved a permanent position, despite his academic vigor and excellence as a teacher. In 1975 he took a position with the federal government as a computer programmer in the United States Army Corps of Engineers, also in St. Louis, where he worked until about a week before his death.

By the time he was in his 40s, Nick had begun to suffer from a severe form of emphysema. Though visibly disabled by his disease, he was able to attend and enjoy the good fellowship of his classmates at the 25th and 30th Reunions. Nor did his illness prevent him from maintaining his widespread interests, as shown by his memberships in the ACLU, Amnesty International,Greenpeace, Gray Panthers, the Humane Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sportscar Club of America.

Robert Ende Nelson Jr. died May 24, 1992, of complications from emphysema.

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A faded memory of Nick, flanked by Mike Simon (l.) and Bill Cantor (r.) on a short trip to
Nantucket after exams and before graduation in 1958
Photo by Dick Franck
 

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