Notable WWII Hero from SW Michigan Has Lost “Long Argument” With Cancer

One of the most iconic war heroes of Michigan’s Great Southwest has lost his “long argument” with cancer. John Nelson died on Tuesday of this week at the age of 93. He was instantly recognizable at virtually every Memorial Day Parade and played a significant role in most, if not all, of St. Joseph Today’s quirky Rein Dog Parades over the course of the years.

His obituary says that John loved St. Bernard dogs—more than 60 of them in his lifetime. He had one with him every time he entered the Rein Dog Parade, as well.

John was a retired music educator for Benton Harbor Area public schools for 19 years, and also a professional musician and dedicated environmentalist. He was known to many in the area as a “dog whisperer” for rescued St. Bernard dogs.

His Daughter, Karen McKinney of Muncie, Indiana says, “He loved French horns, pianos, Mozart and marching bands, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and national parks anywhere in the country. He loved teaching music to young students and anything to do with Civil War or World War II. He loved photography, camping, barbed wire and ghost towns of the Old West.”

Your content continues below

Karen goes on to say, “If ever there was a word to describe Papa, it was ‘eccentric,’” and adds, “He lived a very colorful and varied life and he was never bored. He exposed us three kids to things many people never get to experience. He taught us to love dogs, appreciate music and cherish nature.”

A native of East Chicago, Indiana, Nelson earned his music performance degrees from Northwestern University. He taught music in public schools in Tennessee and Georgia, and also worked as a commercial photographer in Atlanta in the early 1950s. He was a member of the Chattanooga, Tennessee Symphony, Atlanta Symphony and Atlanta Ballet Orchestras for six years before returning to Indiana in 1955, where he taught elementary and high school bands for 17 years in East Chicago, Cedar Lake, Whiting and Portage school systems.

Nelson relocated to Berrien Township in 1973 and taught band and vocal music in the Benton Harbor schools until his retirement in 1992.

His musical career included several decades as principal French horn in the Gary Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Heights Symphony Orchestra, Twin Cities Symphony Orchestra and St. Joseph Community Band. Nelson taught scores of private students, many of whom went on to classical music performance careers on French horn in orchestras across the country.

He was a supporter of the Lest We Forget non-profit organization in Michigan that kept the memories alive of World War II veterans. For decades, he played “Taps” on a vintage bugle at local Memorial Day services and veteran’s funerals, dressing in the uniforms of the veteran’s branch of service.

Nelson was active in the “Save the Dunes Council” efforts to establish the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. He also worked several years as a seasonal park ranger in Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as well as the Dunes Lakeshore, and was thrilled to hear the area was re-designated as a National Park several weeks ago.

Nelson’s large format photographic landscapes of the Indiana Dunes have been published in several books and are part of the permanent archive collection with the U.S. National Park Service.

John is survived by wife, Patrice; former wife, Betty Hatfield of Ogden Dunes, Ind., and their three children, Robin Rayne, Karen McKinney and Allison Levin; three stepchildren, Phillip Hadley, Beth Anne Smith and David Hadley; seven grandchildren; and five great grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be held July 26, 2019 from 1:00 PM until 4:00 PM, at the Sarett Nature Center, 2300 N. Benton Center Road in Benton Harbor. In lieu of flowers, family members ask that you please make donations to the Humane Society of Southwest Michigan or the animal shelter of your choice. Those wishing to share a memory of John online may do so at

Last Veteran’s Day, an historic 7 by 4-foot bronze plaque commissioned in 1923 by the Algonquin Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in St. Joseph and Benton Harbor originally placed in the Old Berrien County Courthouse to commemorate the lives of the 100 men listed thereon who had given their lives for their country in the war, was placed back in all of its glory in Lake Bluff Park across from the Boulevard Inn at ceremonies marking the 100th Anniversary of the end of WWI, and John Nelson remained standing next to the monument in full uniform throughout the hour-long ceremony, as shown in the photo accompanying this story on Moody on the Market.

He will be missed at many a public ceremony and parade.