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Originally published February 9, 2014 at 6:25 PM | Page modified February 9, 2014 at 6:26 PM

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Longtime Seattle educator Robert Nelson dies at 86

Robert Nelson, who rose through the ranks of Seattle Public Schools to serve briefly as superintendent, led the district through a teachers strike in the mid-1980s.

Seattle Times education reporter

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Although Robert Loren Nelson served just 2½ years as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools in the mid-1980s, he steered the district through the longest teachers strike in Seattle history.

Mr. Nelson died in Seattle last Monday (Feb. 3) of complications from an infection. He was 86.

Mr. Nelson, who had risen through the ranks from teacher to administrator, had been ready to retire as deputy superintendent when he was asked to replace Donald Steele as superintendent in February 1984.

Steele had resigned after months of tension with the Seattle School Board over his management style and relations with the black community.

Mr. Nelson was popular among teachers and staff, according to news reports from the time, but disputes between the teachers union and the administration boiled over in 1985.

Teachers were angered by a computerized reading test they said required too much paperwork and cut into instruction time. They also wanted more help in the classroom teaching children who had disabilities or were learning to speak English.

That became one of the big issues of a 19-day teachers strike in fall 1985 that delayed the start of the school year.

Mr. Nelson’s son, Calvin Nelson, remembers his father telling him about what it was like to pull up in his car in front of the district office and try to cross the picket line.

“He’d sit there and wait for somebody to let him in, and then a teacher would recognize him and say, ‘Hey, it’s Mr. Nelson, let him in,’ ” Calvin Nelson said. “They were on strike, but they still respected Dad.”

Frustrated parents held candlelight vigils and went to court to try to end the strike before then-Gov. Booth Gardner coaxed the two sides to a settlement that included $3 million for schools with special-needs kids.

Mr. Nelson, who had agreed to serve as superintendent for 2½ years, did not seek to renew his contract and retired in June 1986 after nearly 34 years of service.

Mr. Nelson was born in Seattle on Nov. 7, 1927, and attended Seattle Public Schools, graduating from Lincoln High School in 1945.

He started his career with the school district as a teacher at Washington Junior High School in 1952. He became principal of Boren Junior High School in 1963 after serving as a Fulbright exchange teacher in Sweden the previous year.

He held several central-administration positions before becoming deputy superintendent in 1982.

Respect for Mr. Nelson was widespread, said his longtime secretary, Pat Hitchens.

“He had to make tough decisions, but he was fair and just loved,” Hitchens said. “He was a very thoughtful man. ”

Mr. Nelson enjoyed traveling with his wife and spending winters in Arizona.

He also served for several years on the board of the Seattle Education Foundation, a nonprofit involved in the founding and operating of area retirement communities for former educators.

Mr. Nelson is survived by his wife, Blanche Marjorie (Anderson) Nelson, of Seattle; daughter Carol Marie (Nelson) Boitano and her husband, John Boitano, of Ellensburg; son Kurt Loren Nelson and his wife, Susan, of Seattle; son Calvin Peter Nelson and his wife, Nancy, of Seattle; son Kyle Robert Nelson and his wife, Arianne, of Whidbey Island; and a sister, Elizabeth Tapper, of La Conner; along with nine grandsons and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 15) at Bethany Community Church, 8023 Green Lake Drive N. in Seattle.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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