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Nelson has made his 98 years count

Curtis Michaels photo Preparing to go to his office in the neighboring building, Morgan Nelson stands in the dining room of the house he has called home for 89 years. Nelson has changed life for New Mexicans for the better many times in his 98 years.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Morgan Nelson moved to Roswell in 1924. It was his fifth year of life and he couldn’t have known the adventures the next 93 years would bring him.

“I was born at Cottonwood, in Artesia,” Nelson said. “My dad lost everything after World War I. He went to farm in Pecos Texas. The first year the jackrabbits ate his cotton. The second year the salt water killed it. So he finally came back here in 1924. In 1928, he had an opportunity to buy the house I live in now.”

Nelson grew up raising cotton in East Grand Plains, and went on to college.

“I went to college at NMSU,” he said. “I got a degree in mechanical engineering with a minor in aeronautical. I graduated in 1941. My draft number was up in January. The United States Army Air Force was eager to get my body with an engineering degree. I went active duty, in July.”

Nelson started his military career in the Middle East.

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“I started out in the 98th bomb group,” he said. “We went over to the Middle East in B-24’s in July of 1942. I stayed in the bomb group until we changed commanders. The new commander and I were not compatible so I went to Cairo.

“Then we went to England. I was made the Engineering Officer of the Third Air Depot Group. I served out the rest of the war there.”

Ever the problem solver, Nelson remembered one particular time he got out from between a rock and a hard place.

“I gave a B-24 to Turkey one time,” he said. “Secretary of State Cordell Hull was trying to keep Turkey out of the war, and keep them at least neutral. Well, we had a B-24 that we had given to them on lease/lend, but the landing gear had been damaged. They wanted it back. I was instructed to get that airplane ready to be returned to Turkey in the next two weeks. It wasn’t really repairable. I asked to substitute an airplane. I got a message back that said ‘Under no circumstances, substitute airplane 596.’”

Most people would feel trapped in that situation. Not Nelson.

“Well I was young, impetuous and I had a job to repair an unrepairable airplane,” he said. “So I got my crew together one night and changed the numbers on airplane 596 to those of another airplane, and put its numbers on that plane. The next morning, lo and behold, airplane 596 was ready to fly.”

Nelson’s ingenuity turned out for the best, but nobody was fooled.

“Turkey got its plane back,” he said. “They stayed out of the war. A month later, I was promoted to Major. I thought that I was the only one that knew about that little stunt. About 30 years later I found out that everybody knew about it.”

Coming home after the war, Nelson was elected to the state Legislature. It was there he made the greatest difference in the lives of New Mexicans.

“I consider my greatest accomplishment was the proposing and making of the junior college movement in the state of New Mexico,” he said. “I was the chairman of the Board of Educational Finance when I proposed the junior college. I got fired over it. Getting schools out of politics when one of the schools had their politicians lined up cost me my position on the BEF.

“We hired a national education expert, and we developed a system. The system showed us the per unit cost of different courses. We learned that English classes cost say $10 per credit hour to teach while German classes cost $90 per credit hour to teach. We published that information. We didn’t do anything with it other than that. The schools started using it. It was one of the better things we did.”

They also studied demographics around New Mexico’s college attendance.

“We ran a survey to find out where the students came from,” Nelson said. “We found out that over 60 percent of the students came from within 50 miles of the institution. The next thing we learned was the number of students who graduated. In the rich counties over 60 percent went to college somewhere. Chaves County, which was a rich county, sent 40 percent of its children to college. The important thing was to have an institution close enough to at least inspire the need to go to college.”

Roswell has Nelson to thank for the nursing school that has produced so many first-rate health care workers, too.

“I also served on the WICHE (Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education),” he said, “and we had a program on nursing schools. At that time, nurses spent three years working at sub-standard wages, making beds and emptying bed pans. The Dean of Nurses at UCLA (Lulu Wolf) Hassenplug, was an advocate of the two-year school, which we have here. She said, “If I can’t teach a nursing student how to make a bed in under 30 minutes they don’t have any business being a nurse.” She said that the three-year program was just an effort to get cheap labor, and that nursing education should be in a school.

“That convinced me that we needed the two year program. Roswell didn’t have anything. So I announced that we were going to start these nursing schools. It took me six years, but we finally got it through.”

Historical preservation has been his main focus of late. It was his encouragement and problem solving skills that got one of the most concise, accurate books on the Lincoln County Wars published. The book is “Lincoln County and its Wars,” by Nora True Henn.

“She wanted to write about the Lincoln County War,” Nelson said. “She lived up there and she interviewed descendants of the participants in the Lincoln County War. She was particular in her work. She spent 20 years doing it.

“When she was done she put it on a shelf, and there it sat. A number of us tried to get her to publish, and I finally got through to her. She would say, ‘I finally got it the way I want it and no editor is going to change it.’ I thought about that and I said, ‘How about if we have it printed.’ ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘Yes! Here it is! That book is her work, no editor touched it.”

There are authorities on the Lincoln County Wars who feel it is the paragon of Lincoln County Wars history.

“Fred Nolan is considered the authority on Lincoln County and he said if this book had been written earlier there would be no reason for anybody to write about the history of the Lincoln County War.”

In the acknowledgment leaf of the book it states, “First is Morgan Nelson of Roswell, NM. It was to him that Nora Henn, before her death, gave permission for the manuscript to be published. He has been the impetus and the behind-the-scenes energy in seeing this project to its completion.”

Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.


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