After practicing law with Pat Nelson for 19 years and being an honorary member of his family for almost 28, I have discovered an incredibly honorable man who is unquestionably devoted to his family, expertly skilled in the practice of law, universally respected by his colleagues, and always genuinely kind to his clients. While placing his family life and his professional life in the proper perspective, Pat simultaneously developed competence and maintained energetic enthusiasm for a multitude of other interests including ham radio, photography, jogging, cycling, golf, Harley riding, and singing.
Pat grinned as he admitted, “My family says my hobby is hobbies.”
The roots of Pat’s varied hobbies declare themselves in a glimpse into his family’s background. His father, Clyde Patton Nelson, born and raised in Berry, Ala., survived the Great Depression as a professional musician. He played the guitar and served as the front man when his band performed at Civilian Conservation Corps work camps and in a weekly Birmingham radio show.
Settling in Jasper in the late 1930s, Clyde owned a radio sales and repair shop. Home Food Store, a small independent grocery store, owned by Pat’s mother Agnes and her first husband, John Hamilton, was located next door to the radio shop.
When Clyde left Jasper to serve in World War II, he sold his interest to his partner and served in Biloxi as an aircraft engine mechanic instructor.
While Clyde was serving in Biloxi, John Hamilton died unexpectedly from cancer. Clyde wrote Agnes a condolence letter, she responded, and they continued to write each other. These letters, like many others of that era, formed the basis of their relationship and they married in 1943. When the war ended, Clyde returned to Jasper and bought the radio repair business back from his partner and he and Agnes opened a shoe repair business next door to the former grocery store.
Until Pat was born in 1946, she repaired shoes in their shop, which they appropriately named Radio Shoe Shop. When Agnes left the business to become a full-time homemaker, she trained her replacement, nineteen year old Lynn Cooner, who later bought the shoe shop and ran it until his retirement in the 1990s.
Changing along with technology, over the years Clyde added televisions, boats, motors, and appliances to his product line. His business ultimately grew into Ziglar Nelson Tire Company.
Agnes grew up in Manchester where her father, John Thomas Scruggs, ran the Camak Saw Mill. In the early 1920s Colonel L.B. Musgrove selected John as the general contractor to build the home for his country estate since the mill was conveniently nearby. Timber was cut from the surrounding property and then used to build the original building which later became the Musgrove Country Club.
the World at 15
Pat attended Memorial Park Elementary School as a first-grader the first year it opened. He went on to Central Junior High School and Walker County High School where he took an electronics course which required obtaining an amateur, commonly referred to as ham, radio operator license. After successfully working through a lengthy and involved set of prerequisites, which included mastering Morse Code, passing an electronic theory course, and traveling to Atlanta to take a test from a Federal Communications Commission examiner, Pat earned his license. In the days when television was still emerging, long distance telephone calls were essentially cost prohibitive, and writing letters was the most common way to communicate across the globe, Pat’s ham radio operator license opened the world’s doors to this 15-year-old boy.
Pat built his first ham radio from a kit and Army and Navy surplus equipment. From the beginning, one of his greatest pleasures in this hobby was running telephone patches for members of the military who were serving in remote locations, other countries, and on ships at sea. These patches allowed them to talk with their families in the United States. He noted, “I did a lot of that, especially out of Antarctica.”
Ham radio also allowed Pat to communicate with operators behind the Iron Curtain during the height of the Cold War. While China and North Korea were completely off limits, he could talk with operators in locations like Moscow and Hungary.
The list of celebrities and notable individuals who have also enjoyed ham radio operating includes royalty such as Jordan’s Queen Noor and Spain’s King Juan Carlos, television journalist Walter Cronkite, singer\songwriter Ronnie Milsap, actors Andy Devine and Marlon Brando, astronauts, governors, and Priscilla Presley. When Pat’s father joined him as an operator, Clyde talked with Senator Barry Goldwater. Pat communicated with General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force and later George Wallace’s 1968 vice presidential running mate, while LeMay was a passenger in a B-52 flying over the North Pole. Over the course of his ham radio years, Pat has collected 260 QSL cards which are a written confirmation of contact between two operators.
After graduating from Walker College, Pat married his longtime sweetheart Becky Birdsong in 1966. They moved to Birmingham and Becky worked and completed college while Pat attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham, finished his degree at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and graduated from Cumberland School of Law. During those years Pat worked full-time in the cost accounting department at U.S. Pipe and Foundry and later at Southeastern Bolt & Screw. He also came home to Jasper on Saturdays to work changing tires at Ziglar Nelson.
In the spring of 1971, while Pat was in law school, Life magazine issued its edition featuring the winning photographs from its annual photography contest. He remembers these photographs as “striking and diverse,” “just one incredible shot after another.” Those photographs brought his lifelong love of family photographs to the forefront and Pat pointed out, “I have always been enthralled with the old pictures that were in my family’s possession. Everybody’s got the shoe boxes and hat boxes and shirt boxes full of these old photos. There was something about seeing my mother, my father, my grandparents, whoever, in these black and white photos they had just put in these boxes for years with some faded newspaper articles. I would get them out, even when I was a little child, when I was five, six, seven years old. I would look at them over and over and over again. I just always loved that.”
Pat had been taking photographs for special occasions like holidays and birthdays since he received his very first camera, a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, for Christmas at age eleven. However, the Life photographs ignited a spark. After seeing them, Pat took off on his photography journey with his first “good” camera, a Minolta SRT-101 single lens reflex. This camera accompanied him and Becky to Europe in 1973 where it had its first real workout.
In 1974, Pat took a photograph of geese chasing a car at Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. After a friend encouraged him, Pat reluctantly entered it in the Birmingham News’ Kodak International Newspaper Snapshot Award contest. This photograph won first prize in the color category for the state of Alabama.
In explaining his first photography award, Pat “chalked it up to beginner’s luck.”
After Pat practiced law and Becky taught school in Birmingham from 1973 until 1977, they came home to Jasper. Pat observed that the births of their three daughters “gave a lot of impetus to my photography. I started gradually getting serious about it.” He set up a complete black and white photograph darkroom, attended workshops and seminars, and read books on the subject.
In late October 1984 when his daughters were 6, 5 and 3, they were outside playing in the leaves with two little girls who lived down the street.
Noticing the quality of the light, Pat got out his best camera, gave each child a touring (newsboy) cap, placed them on a cross tie in the leaves, and took a black and white photograph. Smiling, Pat candidly explained, “Of all these years and all these thousands of pictures, I still only have, at the most, ten that stand out in my mind, that I knew the minute I touched the shutter, it was good. And that’s one of them.”
A month later, on Thanksgiving Day afternoon, after playing outside until they were “dead-tired,” Pat’s three girls and their two close-in-age cousins needed baths once they came inside. After all five children climbed into the tub, Pat photographed them in color. Three years later “October Girls” won the Kodak contest first prize in the black and white category for the state and “Wash Day” claimed first prize in the color category. For many years these photographs were exhibited in the Kodak Hall at Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park in Orlando. “October Girls” was also named an International Merit Award winner and “Wash Day” has been included in Kodak photography instruction manuals.
“October Girls” and “Wash Day,” along with about forty eight others he has taken over the last forty years, will be featured in Pat’s first photography exhibit, “Still Images, a Retrospective,” opening at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center on January 16 at 2:00 p.m. In a brief bio written to be a part of the exhibit, Pat points out that he “enjoys most forms of photography, including nature and wildlife, street shooting, and sports.” Influenced by the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams and Thomas Mangelsen, as well as Edward Hopper’s paintings, he is “particularly drawn to neon signs, paper boxes, bicycles, unique street scenes and colorful patterns, natural and manmade.”
In essence, his exhibit will compose a medley as diverse as his hobbies.
The List Continues — Jogging, cycling, golf, Harley riding, singing
As many did in the mid to late 1970s, Pat started jogging. This inexpensive form of exercise allowed activity outdoors and a satisfying way to help control weight. He trained for and completed the Chicago Marathon in 1984. But he had to stop jogging when arthritis began to take its toll on his joints.
After gym workouts became too confining, Pat bought a bicycle and began a new journey in cycling. For several years he rode about 150 miles each week with other local cyclists. One of the highlights of this venture was a 100-mile ride on the Natchez Trace in 2001. He and Becky went to France in 2005 with a group from Jasper and watched the Tour de France. On two of the race days, they rode with other cyclists ahead of the race past thousands of spectators who had camped for days prior to the race to secure a viewing spot. This adventurous ride, which Pat characterized as an “unbelievable experience,” included cycling up Alpe-d’Huez, a climb he labeled the “Mount Everest of cycling.”
In order to share their pride in their father’s physical conditioning accomplishments, Pat’s daughters nominated him for one of the Olympic torch bearing relay slots for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. After being selected, Pat remembers an incredible day as he carried the torch in West Memphis, Ark., in part of its 65-day course across the country, and then visited Graceland and ate ribs at the Rendezvous restaurant in downtown Memphis.
Golf called to Pat as a youngster and he played on and off most of his life at Musgrove Country Club. With a group of friends he made trips to play in the North Carolina mountains and traveled to Augusta for the Masters Tournament. He also joined the motorcycle ranks and poked fun at himself when he declared, “I managed to have a Harley for seven years without killing myself.”
Most likely genetic, Pat’s love of music, particularly complex harmony, had room to shine when the Jasper Men’s Chorale was formed after a group of men came out of the stands at a Walker College basketball game to sing the National Anthem. In December 1986 the newly formed group organized its members’ abundant singing, writing, and acting skills, and performed a Christmas program for the Walker College Concert Series. Over the next 10 to 12 years, the chorale’s overwhelming popularity grew as it performed around the area and created six or seven more shows including Pat’s favorites, “Where Were You in ’62?” and “Places in the Heart,” the chorale’s version of the Grand Ole Opry.
With immeasurable enthusiasm for life, Pat Nelson has tried on and successfully wears many hats. In his energetic pursuit of an extensive array of interests, he has consistently made sure each hat fits well and is proudly worn with an unrelenting sense of excellence.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890