CSE co-founder remembered for impact on university

Jan 25, 2019      By Karl Vogel

Don Nelson, co-founder of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, died on Jan. 23. He was 88.
Don Nelson, co-founder of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, died on Jan. 23. He was 88.

Don Nelson, a longtime professor of electrical engineering and a driving force in bringing the University of Nebraska into the computer age, died Wednesday, Jan. 23. He was 88.

A founder and director of the university’s Computing Center and co-founder of the Department of Computer Science, Nelson served the university for more than 50 years before retiring in 2005.

“Don was student-focused, very collegial, and a leader in applied computing technology at the university,” said Jerry Hudgins, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It was my pleasure to have the opportunity to work with Don when I first came to UNL. He will be missed.”

Nelson was born in 1930 on his family’s farm in Stanton County, Nebraska. He attended a one-room schoolhouse on one corner of that farm before graduating high school and enrolling at the University of Nebraska. He graduated with distinction and, while waiting to be assigned duties to fulfill his ROTC commitment, worked at AT&T Bell Labs.

After serving as a first lieutenant in the Korean War, Nelson accepted an electrical engineering teaching position at the university and earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering. During this period, he designed and built an analog computer for the university to aid in the educational process.

Nelson left to obtain a Ph.D. from Stanford University, but returned in 1961. Two years later, he was asked to direct Nebraska’s new Computing Center, which grew from five employees in 1963 to more than 100 nine years later.

With Nelson as director, the Computing Center was sought out by the university and state and national industry leaders to develop computer technology and systems, including the Law Information Retrieval System for the College of Law that led to the development of the Bill Drafting System for the Nebraska Legislature.

In 1968, Nelson co-founded the Department of Computer Science, before returning to the College of Engineering in 1972 as a professor of electrical engineering.

His research career was devoted to helping Nebraska industry, including developing a Load Projection System for Nebraska Public Power District, securing projects with the Army and JPL and developing computer programs for companies such as LT&T, Acton, Pfizer and Talent+.

In 1992, Nelson formed and directed the Research Computing Group in the College of Engineering to sustain the working relationship between the university and industry. In 1997, Nelson and one of his students, Muhlin Chen, spun off this group and started Interactive Information Research and Development (i2rd), now known as Proteus.

“Don had a passion for solving problems, (and) his leadership and technical wisdom were instrumental in the success of many mission-critical government and industry solutions,” said Joey Knecht, CEO of Proteus, in a statement on the company’s website. “(His) true impact has been a generous ripple that can be found through his thousands of students, successful business and our many ventures.”

 In 1989, Nelson served as co-director of the Center for Communication and Information Science, a research center established with funds secured from the legislature for Governor Orr’s initiative to promote Nebraska industry. 

He is survived by his wife, Chloe Nelson; his brother, Stuart (Ellen) Nelson of Athens, Georgia; a niece and a nephew. Visitation is today (Jan. 25) from 4-8 p.m. at Lincoln Memorial Funeral Home, 6800 S. 14th St. On Saturday, Jan. 26, there will be a visitation beginning at 8 a.m., followed by the funeral service at 10 a.m., both at Lincoln Memorial.

Memorials are suggested to Eastridge Presbyterian Church, 1135 Eastridge Dr., Lincoln, NE 68510. Condolences can be directed to the Dignity Memorial website.