Aberdeen City Attorney Eric Nelson appreciates the past while living firmly in the present. Today he is a civil servant who lives the life of a country gentleman living on parkland, which suits the Montesano native just fine.
Not that he doesn’t like computers, Google searches and landscaping with power tools. He does and takes advantage of them.
He is attorney as well as consiglieri to city officials and the council. The laws he can look up and craft. What he really likes is listening to what his mayor and council want and figuring out a way to “craft decisions from a legal perspective,” keeping in mind what fits Aberdeen given the resources available.
“It is not a job where you get to issue orders. I always remember the ‘Godfather’ saga … the trick to being a good don is to never tell people you love ‘no.’ You can’t do that and I don’t do that,” Nelson said.
Nelson has been city attorney for 26 years. In an email, Mayor Bill Simpson said: “I have been very happy with the guidance that I have received from Eric. He is a great negotiator for union contracts, both fair and firm. The only thing that bothers me is that you cannot get just a yes or no answer from him. After he talks for some length you still have to ask, is that ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”
Municipal Court Judge Susan Solan has seen Nelson in action on rare days when he acts as prosecutor, and said, “He can pick up a file for the first time and proceed with a devastating cross-examination. That is one of the hallmarks of a capable and talented attorney.”
Nelson is described by city employees and citizens as funny, gruff, kind, witty and very smart. He does have a natural streak of sarcasm and cynicism, he said. He has mellowed over time, especially since he first embraced sarcasm and irony at Montesano High.
“I used to be one of those people who always thought if people weren’t agreeing with me, they couldn’t hear me,” he said. “If only they would listen to me, they would agree with me.”
He grew up thinking that people were flattering him when they would say, “you should grow up to be a lawyer.” It was in high school that he finally figured out they probably weren’t. Maturation and wife Mary Nelson helped him mellow, he said.
Through the past, lightly
A time capsule packed by Nelson includes profiles of his paternal ancestors and childhood photos. Grandfather Ove Malling Nelson fled Wisconsin farm life to practice law in Montesano and ran for office unsuccessfully several times. At 95, Ove Nelson was the oldest practicing attorney in the county when he expired quietly in his chair at the bar association’s Christmas celebration.
His father Greg Nelson also practiced law and was Montesano’s city attorney.
“The two of them were obviously the most responsible for my decision to practice law — and to stay out of politics,” Nelson said.
The capsule contains childhood photos of himself in bow-ties and natty three-piece suits, purchased at Barclay’s Men’s Store in the Elks Building in Aberdeen with the help of two great aunts, who no children of their own. He always had a white shirt, a red wool blazer and a pair of gray flannel slacks.
His father was driving logging trucks when he met his mother, Betty, who became a registered nurse. They had five children. Nelson’s older sister Pam lives in Olympia, and older brother Paul lives in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Younger sisters Brenda and Heather live in Bloomington Ind. and Michigan. Eric, the middle child, is the only lawyer and the only one who stayed on Grays Harbor.
Born in 1955, Nelson first lived in a small house in Montesano on Marcy.
“It was one of these small 1940s vintage homes, the living and dining was not much bigger than this room,” he said, sweeping a hand over his third floor office at city hall. “… The kitchen was half or less as big as this room.”
The family shared three bedrooms. Nelson and his brother slept in bunk beds in one attic room, and the two older sisters shared another under the eaves. The youngest slept on a day bed in the hallway off the master bedroom.
“I don’t think we did an abnormal amount of fighting,” Nelson said. “But when you have five kids crammed together, all with their own interests and pursuits …”
He has a photo of himself playing a duet with his younger sister, Brenda. Reluctant to be called in from playing, Nelson still has a toy gun strapped across his back, which ironically, is pointing at his sister’s head.
Hunting around one day in his father’s closet, Nelson discovered Greg Nelson didn’t only own inexpensive polyester suits. Hung way in the back were “beautiful wool suits with narrow lapels,” from an earlier day. He said he realized thatAll those kids had meant expenses and his dad had decided fine wool wasn’t so important as family.
When he was 11, his parents bought “a white elephant,” the Abel house near the courthouse in Montesano. On his computer, he displayed aerial Google Earth photos of the historic house. The holly hedge they planted is visible, as are the pond and stones he uncovered while exploring.
Recently a bed and breakfast, the Abel house is up for sale. The house, which was a mansion in its heyday, seemed bigger then than it does now, he said.
When his family bought the home it was overgrown with weeds and grass. The children were set to work polishing original wood indoors, mowing and weeding outdoors. They did so well that a neighbor called his mother to inquire who the gardener was.
A 19th century life
Nelson did not dream of entering any particular profession. He attended Grays Harbor College, earned a degree in business at the University of Washington and then decided to study law. He interned for the Grays Harbor County in Montesano.
A lot of 20-somethings returned to the Harbor to practice law. The conviality and comaraderie of the profession in Montesano appealed to him. He went to work for the family practice and rather liked historic office. The said the life suited his personality very well.
He worked as a public defender, then as a criminal prosecutor for the county. He was urged to apply for the Aberdeen City Attorney position in 1988. He bought a home he still owns in Aberdeen.
Portrait of the attorney as a maturing man
Nelson’s city office features antique law books from his family’s practice. His own touches are abundant: a satiric photo-montage of vintage World War II, ordinary-looking shoppers sorting through planets called “Flea Market of the Gods,” paintings by Harbor artists Elton Bennett and Eric Sandgren. He often purchases art by donating at charity auctions. There is a wedding photo of him and Mary.
Photos scroll across his computer of 18 acres of park-like land in Montesano he and his wife convinced his father to sell. They designed and built a small two bedroom home with decks. Elderly boarded horses lived in the front yard until they died recently of old age. Greg Nelson still chops and bucks alder wood on the farm, and though tells his son that at 90 he is done, Nelson won’t be surprised if he returns this summer.
He and Mary married in 1995 following divorces from other spouses. Mary was city’s former assistant finance director, and went to work for the Port of Grays Harbor after they married. The Nelsons used to travel to Seattle to enjoy a plethora of artistic events. Today, they enjoy theater and art here. Husky games and the opera still draw them to the city on weekends.
Gradually, he and Mary Nelson are taming the property, which was quite overgrown. He used to visit there as a child. Mary Nelson plants gardens, he wields a giant string mower that helps him keep slim in summer. Nelson devotes a lot of time to clearing trails and protecting bird habitat and the wetlands on the north end.
He has an ongoing relationship with the beavers who live on the property. A creek seasonally flows with up to two or three inches of water.
He and Mary look forward to raising the golden retriever puppy, Lulu, they won at the United Way’s annual charity auction last weekend.
“It’s the first dog together with Mary,” he said. “We didn’t have children.”
Both enjoyed family dogs in childhood and both have wanted a canine for a long time. They just added a fence to their property in anticipation.
First thing Monday morning, there is an email from Nelson who sent a video that shows him walking jauntily along Lulu’s first walk. He adds a still shot of the sleepy looking puppy in Mary’s arms.The mellowing of the sarcastic and cynical Eric Nelson continues.