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Originally published March 9, 2013 at 7:00 PM | Page modified March 9, 2013 at 10:21 PM

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Quintessential Scandinavian guy of old Seattle, James Nelsen, dies at 97

James R. Nelsen, who died March 2, grew up on a farm in the Tukwila area, helped his bootlegging dad during Prohibition and later ran one of the bigger local moving companies, though he always introduced himself as just “a truck driver.”

Seattle Times staff reporter

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He was the quintessential Scandinavian guy who represented the Seattle of old.

James R. Nelsen could trace his life to farming roots; to going around town during Prohibition with his bootlegging dad to drop off booze for cops and judges; to putting in a hard life’s work running Hansen Bros. Moving & Storage; to dances at the Ballard Eagles followed by late-night breakfasts at the storied 24-hour downtown restaurant, The Dog House.

He was born June 12, 1915, at the family home in the Roosevelt District.

Different times, back then — no rushing to the hospital.

He preferred to be called “JR,” and his family and friends also nicknamed him “Big Daddy” because he was 6-foot-7.

He died March 2 at age 97.

“He just got tired,” says his daughter-in-law, Rhonda Nelsen.

Until Mr. Nelsen was 90, he’d still drive to the Hansen headquarters on 107th and Aurora Avenue North, usually in his pickup, in case help was needed to maybe take packing material somewhere or do some other odd job, says his son, Larry Nelsen, who took over the company in 1975.

He remembers his dad, when asked his occupation, always stated not that he ran one of the bigger moving companies in the area but, “I’m a truck driver.”

Mr. Nelsen also was partial to Lincoln Town Cars and Lincoln Continentals, the kind that weighed around 4,000 pounds. Big cars for a big guy.

Going to restaurants, trying to fit one of those luxury cars in some tiny slot in the lot, remembers Rhonda Nelsen, he’d ask the hostess, “Where do you park a real car around here?”

The elder Nelsen started driving rigs at age 17, working for his aunt and uncle at the company founded in 1890, picking up freight at the docks and rail yards, and hauling merchandise to stores in the University District, where Hansen Bros. had an office.

His son says that in his retirement years, Fridays were Mr. Nelsen’s favorite days to come in and help.

“That’s when he could drop off the paychecks for the guys in the crews,” he says, as the moving company also has offices in Lynnwood and Newcastle.

Mr. Nelsen’s dad, Frank Nelsen,whose career included bootlegging and owning pool halls, taverns and bowling alleys, was part of the Nelsen family from Denmark that sailed to the United States in the late 1800s.

Borrowing from the Holland Netherlands Bank, at 12 percent interest “and payable in gold,” recalls a family history, the Nelsens would end up owning and farming a large tract of land in what is now the Southcenter area in Tukwila.

They had a dairy operation and grew corn, hay and grain. Mr. Nelsen remembered being able to ice skate across the valley when the Green River flooded in the winter.

A 107-acre chunk of this land would become the historic Longacres Racetrack, which had a six-decade life beginning in 1934 until the property, then owned by the Alhadeff family, was sold to Boeing.

Mr. Nelsen’s parents divorced, says Rhonda Nelsen, because the mom “was more of a farm lifestyle,” and the dad, well, was taking his son to judges’ chambers and to the cops, with liquor inside brown paper bags and “opening the door, setting them inside and leaving.”

Mr. Nelsen told his daughter-in-law that his dad, who had an unlimited marine engineer’s license, would “hop a freighter to parts unknown when things would heat up, and come back when they cooled down,” she says.

Mr. Nelsen went into the Army Air Corps at the outbreak of World War II, and he wound up in England as a crew chief working on P-51 Mustang single-seat fighters.

He liked to tell how one time, while under one of the planes doing repair work, he heard someone say, “How is it going, soldier?”

It was Gen. George S. Patton.

Another story Mr. Nelson told concerned a day Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower stopped by the base and wanted to see an aerial view of the battlefields, Rhonda Nelsen says.

One of the Mustangs had been converted to a two-seater by removing some radio equipment, and the general got his ride.

Everybody involved, including Mr. Nelsen, who was part of the ground crew, was chastised for allowing Eisenhower to be unescorted over a war zone.

In the Seattle of old, Mr. Nelsen met his wife when she was a waitress at the Spud Restaurant in the
University District.

Gladys Nelsen died in 1985.

At that time, the couple lived in an apartment by the Swedish Club on Dexter Avenue North.

After his wife died, Mr. Nelsen’s routine included “putting his clothes in the wash, walking over to the Swedish Club, having a drink, and then he knew it was time to put the clothes in the dryer,” says Rhonda Nelsen.

Besides Larry Nelsen, the elder Nelsen is survived by another son, James Nelsen, of Edmonds; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at Greenwood Memorial Park, 350 Monroe Ave. N.E., Renton.

The family will be keeping Mr. Nelsen’s pickup and his Lincoln Town Car.

The Lincoln, says Rhonda Nelsen, with its custom license plate, “JRN,” and its plush ride, “just reminds me of Big Daddy.”

Erik Lacitis: elacitis@seattletimes.com

or 206-464-2237

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