It was sheer chance that led Mike Nilson to the family-friendly confines of Roosevelt Park instead of the war-torn jungles of Vietnam, and he couldn’t be any happier about how things turned out.
Nilson has been involved with the Minot Park District in one form or another for 42 years, but 2008 will be his swan song. A member of the Minot Park Board since his retirement from the park district in 2000, Nilson has decided not to run for re-election this year.
Born in Harvey, he moved to Minot at the age of 10 and graduated from Minot High School in 1958. After serving for three years in the United States Marines Corps, he attended Minot State University and graduated with Bachelor of Science degrees in business and history. It was at this point that fate intervened and turned Nilson’s life in a direction he had never dreamed of before.
“I was waiting to go back into the Marines as an officer, and I got this summer job at Roosevelt Park. And in August of that summer they needed a new assistant superintendent, and I thought, ‘God, this is really neat working at the park.’ So I applied for the job and got it, and (have been) there ever since,” he said. “It’s silly how things happen sometimes.”
To this day, Nilson still can’t imagine what his life might have been like had he elected to go back into the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War. He’s pretty sure that nine out of 10 times, he would have ended up back in Vietnam. But after that, it’s anyone’s guess.
“If I would have gone back in, chances are I probably would have stayed for 20 years, so I probably would have been working at a bank or a service station or something, you know, until you were 60,” he said. “I don’t know how it would have been. It’s kind of interesting to think about it once and a while.”
Besides his newfound interest in the park system, Nilson also had several other reasons to choose the park district over the Marine Corps.
“And I really didn’t feel too bad about not going back in the Corps because by that time I had been married and we had two children and I knew I’d be going back to Vietnam so I thought that probably wouldn’t have been a very good idea,” he said. “The park thing worked out.”
Working in a park was something Nilson had never envisioned himself doing before that summer job. But the more he worked, the more he liked it. And the serendipitous job opening seemed like the perfect opportunity to permanently trade in his military uniform for a civilian one.
“I had never had any plans to work in a park situation at all. It just never dawned on me, until I went to work at the park and at the zoo and just got interested in, you know, the whole process, the whole thing,” Nilson said.
From that assistant superintendent job, Nilson was appointed to the superintendent position in the early ‘70s. Somewhere along the line, the name of the position was changed to director, and Nilson held that post until the mid-90s, when he became development officer of the park, which had to do with planning for the future. He remained at that position until his retirement in 2000.
While he may be getting out of the park business, Nilson isn’t giving up working with the great outdoors entirely. He currently works three days a week at Lowe’s Floral selling shrubs and trees.
“That’s a nice job,” he said. “You get to see a lot of the public and that type of thing.”
He’s also involved in the American Legion and has been a board member on the Minot Commission on Aging for 33 years.
Although he’ll have more free time on his hands when he steps down from the park board, there’ll no doubt be other things that will pop up to occupy his time.
“The wife, they have those ‘round-to-it lists, which, you know, get longer and longer,” he said with a laugh. “I suppose she’s had me redo the house about three or four times because we’ve lived there for about 36 years.”
Innumerable memories have been built up during his years with the park system, many with more than their fair share of excitement. When a tiger escaped zoo grounds on Christmas Day in 1978, Nilson was half a block away with a tranquilizer gun before police were forced to shoot it. He had to do the shooting himself in the late-60s when a bear escaped its enclosure and climbed a tree on zoo grounds. Although his shot was a direct hit, the bear had enough strength left for one final charge down the tree.
“Everybody ran, including me until I realized, no, I’m the one who’s got the gun,” Nilson said as he laughed.
Luckily, the bear became caught in a “V” section at the base of the tree and died there.
“And I remember hearing these stories about if you shoot a bear, you know, they’ll just keep coming. Well, when we examined (the bear’s body), the bullet went through the heart and part of the lung, and that bear still came charging,” Nilson said. “And I thought, ‘That’s amazing.’”
Not all the escaped animal stories are as heart-stopping as that one. Nilson remembers a pair of boa constrictors that escaped their indoor container and caused quite a mess, literally. While one was eventually caught, the other one was found curled underneath an old radiator in the building. After failing to pull the snake out of its hiding place, they tried to flush it out with water, with disastrous results.
“We took a hose and were spraying him with water. And it was the hose that we washed the cages down with, and the water became really, really hot and we killed the stupid snake,” he said. “Then we had to go through the radiator and make little slits and cut the snake out in pieces. You remember some of those things and it’s just goofy.”
While the 1969 flood that almost destroyed the zoo was one of Nilson’s worst memories, it can’t overshadow the many good memories he has. His efforts to help create the Greater Minot Zoological Society in the 1970s and build the zoo into what it is today are among his proudest achievements. Helping to create the system of small parks around Minot that complement Roosevelt and Oak parks is another accomplishment he takes pride in.
Asked what he’ll miss most, Nilson couldn’t point to anything in particular.
“I think I’ll miss it all, the whole park thing,” he said. “The zoo and the park and the whole thing.”
Nilson isn’t really sure what he’ll do with all his extra free time once his park board term expires in June because he’s been involved with the park district for so long. One thing he is sure about, however, is the decision he made all those years ago when a job at Roosevelt Park opened up just as he was about to enter into his second stint with the Marines.
“It was a good trip,” he said.
(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to email@example.com.)