Today, about 600 students get their educations through the University of Baraboo/Sauk County, and an imminent expansion in the coming years should make room for more.
But in the 1950s, when the campus was created, the idea of a local two-year college was controversial. Some believed the university would struggle just to enroll 200 students. The late Ken Nelson disagreed.
“He wasn’t afraid to speak his piece, and he was very influential in that effort,” said Allen Paschen of Baraboo, who chaired a committee that established the campus.
As a member of that committee, Paschen said, Nelson worked tirelessly to convince others that an institution of higher learning within Baraboo would pay dividends in the long run.
Nelson, a former city alderman, Eagle Scout, history buff, farmer, and community servant, passed away Tuesday. He was 83.
Originally from Waupaca, Nelson served in the Wisconsin National Guard after he graduated from Waupaca High School in 1949. He later attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree and two Master of Science degrees in agricultural economics and soils.
He worked as a Sauk County agricultural agent and as a professor at the UW-Madison Extension.
His college sweetheart, Nancy Zernzach, who became his wife in 1954, said her husband had a way about him that put people at ease.
“When we would attend functions, I could just stand by his side and the conversation would just flow,” Nancy said. “It just was very easy.”
She said her husband made a habit of helping people who were down on their luck. He would find jobs for young men in the area who were without work and struggling, and he helped families that had come upon hard times get back on their feet.
Nancy and Ken spent their time between Baraboo, Waupaca and Wild Rose. In Baraboo, Nelson served in leadership positions with the Baraboo Jaycees, Kiwanis, Masonic Lodge, Elks, Sauk County Historical Society, Sauk County Housing Authority, Al Ringling Theatre Friends, Crane Foundation and the Wisconsin Alumni Association. As a Jaycee, he once was presented with a Distinguished Service Award.
As young men, Nelson’s two sons, Craig and Brent, were not enthusiastic about the typical burger-flipping jobs most teenagers seek out. He encouraged them to start a small farm.
As adults, the two men realized a love for the outdoors that their father helped instill. Today, Craig is a full-time farmer. And although Brent works primarily as an engineer, he also spends time helping at the family farm west of Waupaca.
“He was always very generous and always said hello to people,” Brent said of his father, who he described as having a passion for bettering his community. “He would be standing next to someone he didn’t know and would just strike up a conversation out of nowhere … It can open a lot of doors for you when you’re outgoing like that, and it did for him.”
A celebration of Nelson’s life will take place from 11 to 4 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Waupaca Ale House, 201 Fox Fire Drive, in Waupaca.