Back in the 1940s, Gene Nelson was getting ready to become a photographer who’d fly in reconnaissance missions over Germany.
Instead, he’d end up in a Broadway musical promoting war bonds and later in a movie called “Winged Victory.”
It was a development that might have set a future flight pattern for the young man.
Years later, Nelson was taking Midland students on USO tours around the world. He took the college choir to Europe, directed musicals at Midland and is known as the man who founded the Clef Dwellers ensemble.
This weekend, Nelson is returning to direct the song “Beautiful Savior” when Midland University celebrates 90 years of music with an anniversary concert. The event starts at 7 p.m. Saturday at First Lutheran Church, 3200 E. Military Ave., in Fremont.
Admission to the concert, featuring the Midland Reunion Choir, is free and open to the public.
During his time at Midland, Nelson was an associate professor of music. But long before that, he had a host of other experiences.
Nelson, 95, grew up in Kearney, where his dad was principal of the junior high school. He graduated from Kearney High School. Nelson attended Luther College in Wahoo for a semester, then joined the Army Air Corps, said his son, Jorge.
During World War II, Nelson prepared to become a photographer for the U.S. Army Air Corps and go to Germany for reconnaissance work.
But the elder Nelson’s mission would change after he and another GI were walking down 42nd Street and asked by an agent if they’d try out for a Broadway musical “Winged Victory,” promoting war bonds.
“They were two, tall, handsome GIs who just happened to sing,” Jorge Nelson said. “So instead of him flying over Germany, he spent World War II promoting the war effort on Broadway and in Hollywood.”
In Hollywood, Nelson had the part of a chorus member in the movie “Winged Victory” about men who join the Army Air Force in hopes of becoming pilots.
The 1944 film was produced by the movie mogul Darryl Zanuck, who was born in Wahoo, and included actors Red Buttons (who would become an Academy Award-winning actor) and Karl Malden (later known for playing a detective on TV’s “The Streets of San Francisco”—and one of Nelson’s favorites of the actors.)
After the war, Nelson went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., on the GI Bill. He got into the choir, where he met his future wife, Doris “Dorie” Thorpe. He graduated in 1950 with Doris. They married on graduation day in the St. Olaf chapel.
Nelson went on to teach high school music in Houston, Texas, Medford, Ore., Vancouver and Tacoma, Washington.
Nelson would apply for – and receive – the position at Midland. So the Nelsons came to Fremont with their children: Jan, Jorge, Laurie and Mari.
Midland’s vocal music program grew during Nelson’s tenure from 1962 to 1976.
As an associate professor, he led the Midland Lutheran College choir and the Clef Dwellers.
A 2008 Fremont Tribune article tells how the Clef Dwellers group came about.
“When he arrived, there were madrigal singers and they morphed into Clef Dwellers,” Dorie Nelson said.
The musical ensemble’s name had its own unique origin.
“They were dwelling on the treble and the bass clef of the music they were singing,” Jorge Nelson said. “It mixed the musical clef with dwellers. They lived on the musical notes.”
The name also came from Nelson’s residential dwelling. He and his family lived in the Riverview housing development overlooking the Platte River.
“We happened to live on the cliff in Saunders County,” his son said.
Nelson also created the Twilight Dinner Theater.
“He would do musicals outside on the grass at Midland,” Jorge Nelson said. “It was like a dinner theater. You could have dinner and watch a Broadway musical put on by the Midland students.”
Nelson would take the Clef Dwellers on four USO tours to various locations around the world. He took the Midland Lutheran College choir to Europe and they also toured the United States, Jorge said.
He judged high school music contests and recruited students. He helped them get scholarships.
Nelson also brought Dave Brubeck, one of the top jazz pianists in the world, to Nebraska. The choir performed with Brubeck and the Omaha Symphony Orchestra in 1969.
During his time at Midland, Nelson taught students who’d become noteworthy musicians.
International opera star Greg Ryerson, who lives in Europe, was one of Nelson’s students.
“He had a gorgeous bass voice,” Gene Nelson said in the 2008 Tribune article.
One of Nelson’s students was Leonard Piggee, a soloist for the choir and swing choir, who went on to a career on Broadway. Piggee played the character of Tiny Joe Dixon in the Broadway production of “Dreamgirls.”
After Nelson left Midland, he moved to Gig Harbor, Washington, and taught music at Tacoma Community College until he retired in 1985. That year, he and his wife and Jorge went to the International School of Bangkok.
There, Gene Nelson taught music in the high school, while Dorie taught music in the elementary school and Jorge taught sixth grade.
“We were there two years,” Jorge said.
Gene is a two-time cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1985 and then kidney cancer in 1990.
Jorge said his dad is excited about returning to Midland, where he served as a guest director for the choir’s reunion concert in 2008.
“He’s going to be 96 in a couple weeks,” Jorge said. “This is really going to give him a shot in the arm.”
Jorge added that “Beautiful Savior” – the song his dad will direct – was one Gene and Dorie sang at St. Olaf when they were dating.
“It’s a sweet song,” Jorge said. “We did it 10 years ago and there were so many people crying. It’s really hard to sing that when you’re crying. It was cool.”
When Trinity Lutheran School and Archbishop Bergan Elementary School started their joint STEM Club in the fall of 2017, the idea was to give students from both schools an opportunity to learn about the principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in a fun environment.
On Thursday, along with continuing their own STEM education, club members also helped provide the same opportunity to children staying at Care Corps Family Services.
During the club’s regular meeting time, more than 30 fourth- through sixth-graders put together 20 STEM kits that will be taken to Care Corps on Monday and given to children staying at the local homeless shelter.
Before the group began putting together the STEM kits, Trinity STREAM Coordinator Brett Meyer addressed the students about the importance of the project.
“You are doing something right now that is going to have a lasting impact on a child or children potentially for the rest of their life, so what you are about to do today is life changing,” he told the students. “We have gone through the whole year and we have learned about engineering and now this is the service that we can give back to the community.”
The project was funded through the Fremont Area Community Foundation’s Youth Philanthropy Contest, which provided a $750 grant to purchase K’NEX Education lever and pulley sets that were put into STEM kits along with other items.
Fremont Area Community Foundation Executive Director Melissa Diers also addressed the students about their Youth Philanthropy Contest project.
“Our committee was so impressed with what a neat, neat thing your club is doing,” she said. “I think it is a wonderful opportunity to find a way to be of service and this is a unique way of doing that, but it is very important.”
Students worked together to put the K’NEX sets into blue tote bags along with magnets, strings, and a Challenge Guide created by the STEM Club that will allow the kids at Care Corps to create even more structures with the K’NEX sets.
“So once they get done building what is in the instructions for the K’NEX, they can then go through the Challenge Guide and try to really expand their imagination to build these challenges,” Meyer said. “Our goal is to, when they are at Care Corps, to just be able to get lost in their imaginations.”
According to Meyer, the idea for the Youth Philanthropy Contest project came when he was at John C. Fremont Park last summer with a booth full of K’NEX toys for children to play with.
“There was a very young child that stopped by that was playing with those K’NEX for about three hours and he just kept building and building,” he said.
A little while after the child left, Meyer was approached by the child’s guardian who told Meyer that they had just recently moved into Care Corps.
“Later that afternoon his mom or guardian stopped by to say thanks for letting him play today,” Meyer said. “She said it was an amazing opportunity for the child to remove himself from the stress of all the change they were going through, so really that was where the seed was planted.”
After that Meyer, along with a committee of STEM Club students came together and came up with idea to donate STEM kits to Care Corps to provide to kids coming through the shelter.
“These STEM kits will be available for kids who come into Care Corps, they take a STEM kit and it is theirs,” Meyer said. “We can go home and we have Chromebooks and computers and video games, all sorts of games and the kids at Care Corps dont have those opportunities.”
Care Corps Executive Director Tera Kucera was also on hand for the packaging of the STEM kits and she expressed just how much it means for kids who come through the non-profit’s doors just to have something that is their own.
“A lot of times the kids we have in the shelter they literally have just the clothes on their back and that is it,” she said. “So to have something of their very own, is huge.”
Fremont’s second solar farm has a contractor.
The Fremont City Council approved a contract with Gen Pro Energy Solutions, who installed the first solar farm, during its meeting on March 27, City Administrator Brian Newton said.
The contract is for $1,525,200, city records show. The purchase agreement stipulated that the farm must be up and online by Oct. 1, Newton added.
The price per panel was slightly higher this time around, jumping from around $180 to about $200, Newton said. That’s because the panels were larger than those used in the first farm, and also because of a recently imposed U.S. tariff on imported solar energy equipment.
The staff report recommended that the City Council authorize the contract and purchase order to GenPro because of price, “equipment specifications, contractor experience proposed project staff and approach and maintenance after installation.”
“Staff has had a favorable experience with GenPro Energy Solutions during the implementation of Solar Farm #1,” the recommendation reads. “GenPro has also proposed the use of the same equipment that was installed at the first solar farm, which will help alleviate maintenance and inventory issues in the future, and also create continuity between the systems.”
Additionally, the city has received a $300,000 grant for 1500 panels as part of the farm, Newton told the Tribune. The city is working with the state to apply the energy generated from those panels to low-to-moderate income Fremont residents who qualify for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Newton said. That would help residents who are low-to-moderate income utilize renewable energy.
“Normally renewable energy programs are only for those that can afford it because they cost a little bit more,” Newton said. “That’s what I found when we did Phase I, there really was nobody that was low-to-moderate income.”
The second solar farm was initiated after the first farm sold out in seven weeks. There are 150 people on a waiting list for the second farm, and around 300 who have expressed interest in solar energy in general, Newton said.