The most concise, accurate and elegant description of Morgan Nelson comes from his long-time friend Alvin Jones.
“He was a principled contrarian,” Jones said. “He was not a follower. He was always wary of where the herd was going — it didn’t make any difference to him who was in the herd. He wanted to know for himself. But he wasn’t obstinate. I had nothing but the greatest admiration for him.”
On the day he died, Nelson was still Chaves County Flood Commissioner, a position he’d held for more than a decade. A week earlier, he’d submitted a report to the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District. It gave 45 years of evidence that they’d be wise to re-evaluate certain water use policies.
“I considered him to be an autodidact,” Jones said. “He was self-schooled on water and he had the best resources. I always respected his views.”
Autodidact was an apt term for Nelson. He never stopped learning. He never stopped believing in the power of higher education. He and his wife, Joyce, founded and endowed scholarships at New Mexico State University and at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. They were for students who had shown a strong will to learn. Grades were a secondary concern to work ethic.
Nelson was proudest of his proposal and implementation of a law that created community colleges in New Mexico. He was in his late 30s at the time. In the six decades since, New Mexicans have received nursing degrees, dental assistant certifications, A&P certifications and countless other career-based educations to improve their lives. According to the New Mexico Higher Education Department, 17 community colleges had enrolled 65,767 students in the fall of 2018. It’s no stretch to say he has positively impacted well over 1,000,000 people with that one effort.
He carried his compassion for, and belief in his fellow man beyond the classroom, however.
“As a judge, I dealt with Morgan through his interest in community corrections,” Jones continued. “Morgan sat on a community corrections advisory panel for Chaves County. He always had an interest in and concern for people he felt needed an extra chance, or support. He wanted to help. When it came to people who committed crimes, he didn’t judge them. He saw them as people who needed to be helped and brought back into society. He wanted them to have the opportunity to get on with their lives. He had a political inclination for systems that would do that. He was compassionate.”
Tim and Tom Jennings grew up knowing Nelson. When Tim became a county commissioner, he saw how important Nelson’s knowledge was.
“He was an avid historian,” Jennings said. “He was probably the last person left who had been there when The Pecos River Compact was signed. Anybody in the agricultural community knew and respected Morgan. He was blunt and had a dry sense of humor. He knew about the development of the whole area.”
Nelson enjoyed making friends. He treated everybody he met with the same joyful, curious and infectious affability.
“Dad traveled and he always met people,” his daughter Jane McLaughlin said, “but they were never just someone he’d met. He’d always get to know them and make friends with them. Wherever he was, if it was overseas or in the states, people would know who he was.”
His friendships and love extended to every generation of his family.
“He let me stay over a lot,” Great-grandson Morgan Houghtaling said. “It felt like he liked having me as company. He called me ‘The Kid.’ If I have a kid, I’ll name them Morgan.”
Some of Nelson’s friendships extended back a few generations.
“Morgan was a year older than my dad,” Jim Gill said. They were together at New Mexico A&M (now NMSU). There was always a running battle between the two families, little stunts.
“When Morgan was a small boy, about eight or so — my grand-dad would be looking through the warehouse to the alley. He’d shout, ‘Lock up the safe, the Nelson kid’s here.’ Morgan would climb in the safe just out of curiosity.
“We’d send him Morning Glory seeds. Cotton farmers hate Morning Glories. When Morgan got home from heart surgery, we went down to Barringer’s and had a nice floral arrangement of Morning Glories wrapped around a Peat Moss pole stuck in a pot with foil and a bow. We had it delivered. He said he was standing at the front door when the florist pulled up. The moment he saw those Morning Glories, he knew who’d sent them. We said we just thought we’d put a little stress on his stitches while they were still under warranty.”
Nelson’s sense of humor was complemented by his adventurous ways.
“Sonny and I had only been married a couple of years,” daughter Ann Houghtaling said. “He and Daddy drove to the Tulare farm show in California. I stayed behind to run the farm. When they came back, Sonny said, ‘I am never going on another trip with your father if he drives.’ Daddy drove like a farmer, down the middle of the road, looking at the crops everywhere. He did that until he quit driving.”
“Daddy was taking my husband Larry out to look at the farm,” daughter Margo Eichwald said, “and Larry pointed and said, ‘What’s that over there?’ Daddy asked him if he wanted to go see it. Larry said ‘sure.’ Daddy took off across the field in his car. I always said if Daddy offered you his car when he got a new one, don’t take it.”
“He drove his cars like they were trucks, Ann said. “One time he parked over a skunk, but he couldn’t smell because of his allergies. The year Jane got her driver’s license, Daddy was driving across the field and ran over an irrigation valve, and he put a hole in the Mustang’s gas tank. They used soap to plug the hole and he drove back from Cottonwood to replace the gas tank.”
Nelson’s sense of adventure transcended generations.
“He taught me to drive,” grandson Ricardo Eichwald said. “I was 11 and he decided to teach me to drive with my great-grandmother’s Cadillac. It was about as long as they ever made them. We were driving to Cottonwood and at Crossroads we switched places. He had me drive down the Artesia highway.
“He decided I needed to learn how to pass on the highway,” Eichwald said. “He was reading the newspaper while I was driving. He’d look up and say, ‘OK, now,’ and I’d step on the gas and get around the car in front of us. He said not to tell anyone, but I was 11 and excited. I told everybody. My dad wasn’t happy about that.”
Nelson loved people, and more than that, he liked them. He devoted his 99 years and 5 months to bettering people’s lives, right up to the end. The awards he has received are too numerous and widespread to count. The ways in which he improved people’s lives, or gave them the opportunity to improve their own lives are vast and varied.
He could never learn enough to satisfy his need to know more. He had two boxcars packed with historical information he had collected and collated for future generations. He embraced technology with the vigor of a small child on Christmas morning. He used his ever-growing knowledge in service to mankind.
“I had a friend from church,” Ann said, “who searched for Daddy’s obituary online. She was amazed at how many times he had been in the Roswell Daily Record in just the last few years. She said, ‘You must be royalty!’ I said, ‘No — he was — but not me.’”
There’s no counting the number of people standing on the shoulders of this giant. Rest well, Morgan Nelson. You will be missed.