Duluth Retriever Club honors volunteer's memory by naming field for him

It's a perfect place to train retrievers. The 40-acre field with a narrow pond is part of the Duluth Retriever Club's property along Lester River Road north of Duluth.

Ron Nelson
Ron Nelson and his black Lab, Pinky, return from a morning duck hunt at Canosia Wildlife Management Area near Duluth. Nelson, who was 73 at the time, used a ski pole in the marsh for added balance. File / News Tribune

It's a perfect place to train retrievers. The 40-acre field with a narrow pond is part of the Duluth Retriever Club's property along Lester River Road north of Duluth.

Now the parcel has a name: Ron Nelson Field.

The club voted in July to name the field for the late Ron Nelson, who made significant contributions to the club and its members through his volunteer efforts. Among Nelson's many contributions, he taught hunters with young retrievers how to train them. He volunteered at field trials and hunt tests and youth events. He did most of the construction of the group's clubhouse building.

Nelson died on June 17 after being diagnosed with cancer just one month earlier. He was 76.

"He was probably the most valuable member we had at the club," said Duluth's Bob Allie. "He was there all the time. It was kind of like a second home."


The club had several years ago awarded Nelson a life membership in the group.

"Ron was a giver," said club member Joe Tieberg of Duluth. "He always just poured his heart and soul into whatever project was undertaken --cleaning an outhouse, pumping a septic tank, making phone calls."

When the club decided to build a new clubhouse a few years ago, Nelson took charge. Al Butterworth of Superior, who was president of the club then, remembers working with Nelson.

"He was really the supervisor, the foreman, the master carpenter -- he was it," Butterworth said. "I was one of his grunts."

As proficient as Nelson was, he kept the clubhouse construction in perspective, Butterworth said.

"When maybe sometimes I was getting a little too exacting, he'd look at me and say, 'Al, we're not building a church,' " Butterworth said. "He was great fun."

Nelson helped teach a "Train the Trainer" class at the club for hunters with young dogs. His gentle demeanor was just right for those hunters, who could feel vulnerable when their dogs were slow to pick up a new concept in retrieving.

"He really had a passion," said Allie, who worked with Nelson in teaching the classes. "He was really interested in working with people, in helping them with their dog work and raising the expectations of people who use Labradors."


Nelson's last Lab was Pinky, an old black Lab that had grown white in the muzzle when I encountered them one duck opener at the Canosia Wildlife Management Area. Nelson and Pinky came walking slowly up a trail after a half-mile trek from their morning hunt, just the two of them.

Nelson dropped his heavy camouflage bag of gear and decoys.

"We're both in our 70s," he had said with his wide smile.

Nelson was 73 at the time. Pinky was 10, or 70 in "dog years." Nelson loved Pinky as he loved nearly all Labs.

"More than once on hunting trips, we awoke in the morning to see Ron and his dogs in the same bed," said club member Fred Tarnowski of Knife River.

"I'd rather hunt with the dog than a gun," Nelson once said. "If I had to give one up, I'd give up the gun."

Nelson taught industrial arts in Duluth for Marshall School and the Duluth public schools, completing his career at the Secondary Technical Center in 1998. With his classes, he helped build Habitat for Humanity houses in Duluth.

"The guy could do anything," Allie said.


In addition to teaching classes and working on projects at the retriever club, Nelson constantly did favors for people he knew.

"I'd come in on a Monday and say, 'Look at this, Ron. I crossed one fence and got a scratch on my new Benelli (shotgun),'" Tieberg said. "He'd say, 'Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it.' A week later, he had it finished."

Nelson once helped Allie refurbish a Rehbein wood-and-canvas canoe.

"He said, 'Oh, yeah. I've done many of those,' " Allie remembered.

That's who Nelson was.

"He just did things for people he knew," said his wife, Margaret. "People would call him if they needed help with projects at their home. He'd run over to their place to help them."

Now, Nelson's contemporaries and future generations of retriever owners will train their dogs on a piece of ground called "Ron Nelson Field." Part of the property recently was logged to expand the training area. Access roads have been added or improved, and the field seeded with prairie grasses. Pheasants Forever paid for much of the grass seed.

On part of the land, there's a little knoll where a grove of old pines provides some shade. That's where hunters often gather after training to sit on pickup tailgates and share thoughts on dog training.


When the light is just right on a summer evening, you can almost see Nelson on that knoll, among his fellow hunters, talking dogs.

At Ron Nelson Field.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or . Follow him on Twitter at ""

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