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Richard Thomas Nelson Sr., Vietnam vet dedicated to helping young people

Sept. 3, 1946 — Sept. 15, 2018

Richard Thomas Nelson Sr., a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam and one-time assistant chief of staff for State Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, spent his life helping people in Buffalo, especially children.

His life's defining traits were loyalty and dedication to others, said his oldest granddaughter, Ciara Johnson.

"A lot of his friends that he held dear were childhood friends that he grew up with, or friends he was in the service with," said Johnson. "His children and his grandchildren were his world, and anything he did he was committed to. He passed that torch on to his grandchildren."

Mr. Nelson, of Buffalo, died Sept. 15 in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo after a short illness. He was 72.

He was born  in Buffalo's Fruit Belt, and his father worked in Ford's Buffalo Stamping Plant.

He graduated from School 37 and from McKinley High School, where he was an all-star athlete in both football and basketball.

Mr. Nelson enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1964 and served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a platoon sergeant. He was wounded on his first tour and received a Purple Heart, but chose to return for a second tour "as a show of his patriotism and dedication to his fellow Marines and Marine Corps," his family said.

After his military service ended in 1972, Mr. Nelson returned to Buffalo and worked briefly for the United States Postal Service and in the auto industry.

Around 1973, he began to pursue his lifelong passion for youth services, first as a coordinator with Operation Sports Rescue under the auspices of the Buffalo Urban League.

In 1974, when the National Inner Cities Youth Organization was founded, Mr. Nelson became the director of the organization's Randy Smith Summer Basketball Classic for boys and girls age 8 and up.

A talented administrator and grant writer, Mr. Nelson served as assistant chief of staff for Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Mr. Nelson worked as director of programs at a state park in Niagara County from the early 1990s to about 1996.

He served as deputy commissioner of Erie County Youth Detention in the 1990s into the 2000s. In 1996, he spoke to The Buffalo News about breaking the cycle of youth detention. "We have started our foster program and our after-school foster care," Mr. Nelson said. "But the effort to get the parents involved is slow-moving, because the courts can't order it.

"We don't want to play God, but when we send kids back to the environment that led them here in the first place, it's a revolving door," he said. "We have kids who have been here four, five, seven times."

After retirement from the county, Mr. Nelson soon itched to return to work. "He decided he still wanted to give back to the community," said Johnson. Mr. Nelson wrote a grant to begin an Ex-Offender Re-Entry Program at the Buffalo Urban League, then served as coordinator of the program.

He insisted that his children and grandchildren also give back to the community; because of his influence, Johnson is now a supervisor of preventive services for the Urban League.

Through the years, Mr. Nelson volunteered for many youth services organizations and recreational activities for young people and served as a coach in youth leagues.

His family described Mr. Nelson as "dependable, honest, and giving, while at the same time being one of the toughest individuals many of us had ever known."

After he retired, Mr. Nelson lived in South Carolina for about two years before returning to Buffalo in 2016.

He is survived by his life partner, Mary Lee; his childhood sweetheart and former wife Alice Marie Combs; his children, Tonya Minor, Denise Nelson, Richard T. Nelson II and Imari R. Nelson, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and one niece.

Family will receive friends and relatives from 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday at Friendship Baptist Church, 402 Clinton St., Buffalo, where a funeral will begin at 11 a.m.

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