W. Don Nelson

Position Held: Staff, State Office of Programming and Planning Director, 1969 -1971; Director, 1971 - 1979; Chief of Staff, Gov. Kerrey, 1983 - 1987, Nebraska Director, U.S Senator E. Benjamin Nelson, 2001 - 2005

Interviewer: Dayle Williamson

Associated NRDs:



MR. WILLIAMSON: This is Dayle Williamson. It's February the 18th, 2014, and I'm doing this interview for the NRD Oral History Project and the person I'm interviewing today is W. Don Nelson. Don, would you give us some of your background, when you came to Nebraska, and how you got involved in the natural resources districts?

MR. NELSON: My first contact was when I was finishing up a master's degree in graduate school in Tallahassee, Florida, and I was on a track that I did not want to stay in Florida. Andrea and I got married two years earlier and she was pregnant with our first daughter, Ann (phonetic), and I thought it would be best to look around the country and see what might be an interesting experience. At that time, it was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and I had been in the reserve officer training program as an undergraduate, so I was a prime candidate for going overseas and I had to build that into my thinking that, if I were called for duty or drafted, that Andrea and our soon-to-be child would be stateside while I was probably overseas for at least a couple years. So, I was looking for some sort of a temporary employment thinking it's probably going to need to get interrupted. As I looked around, I referred to a professional journal. My master's program that I was working on, the two-year master's in urban or regional planning, had sort of a want-ads magazine that circulated nationally and I was looking through that, periodically, and up popped an ad that Doug Beureter, a long-time congressman from Utica, Nebraska, who, at that point, was working for the governor, Norbert Tiemann. And they had gotten a bill passed in the 1969 legislature to create the State Office of Planning and Programming. Doug was recruiting staff members, put an ad in this magazine, and I just slipped a one-page resumé in an envelope and mailed it to Doug. A week later he called me at home, we were having dinner, and said, “I'm really interested in your background.” I had already gotten a law degree previously, I was a graduate from law school, and he was really interested since he had a planning degree from Harvard about the combination of law and planning at that time. Those are the days when they didn't have a joint degree program, where you could work on one and get both, so I was actually enrolled at Florida State University as two separate students; Don Nelson in graduate school and Don Nelson in law school. Well, I finished law school and I was actually admitted to practice law at the same time I was finishing up the second year of my two-year master's program. Doug said he'd send me a plane ticket to fly out. I came out in October of 1969. He and Louise, and Bob Kuzelka, took me to my first dinner at the original Valentino's across from east campus. And the second evening, we dined at a place now out of business on 'O' Street, Tony and Luigi's.

MR. WILLIAMSON: Good history. That original Valentino's will be torn down soon.

MR. NELSON: Yeah, they'll both be, ex post facto. So, I liked what I saw, Doug liked what he heard, and he hired me on the spot. And I said, “Well, I've got to go back to Tallahassee. I've got to finish up my academic program and I've got to finish my thesis. I've got to take my oral exams and get my master's degree. I've got a couple of cases pending that are on appeal, and I've got to transfer any case work and clients, and we'll be out around the first of the year.” He said, “That'll be fine.” So, I went back to Tallahassee. Andrea and I packed all of our stuff. Went down to say goodbye to a bunch of our friends in the Florida Keys and her parents, who were living on the Gulf Coast, and off we came. First, we went to my sister's, who's a long-time resident of Salina, Kansas. We stayed -- spent the holidays with her and the family. Came up to Utica and crashed with Doug and Louise in their home in Utica, and commuted every morning to Lincoln to look for a place to stay and get settled in. So, I actually went on the payroll the very first working day of 1970. That was election year. The then governor, incumbent Norbert Tiemann, was running in the republican primary against Clifton Batchelder, a rather spirited partisan primary. An awful lot of our friends who were democrats had changed their party registration so they could vote for Nobby Tiemann in the republican primary. And in all of 1970, I made a lot of friends and my job was to work on regional government efforts that Doug was promoting at the time, as was Governor Tiemann. Doug didn't like to fly around with the governor a lot, so when Nobby held his town hall meetings, I was assigned the task of going on the road with other department heads to tell the story of state government with Governor Tiemann in municipal auditoriums or legion clubs, or wherever we had these town hall meetings. And the governor and I got to meet each other and work together as a result of that travel together. I didn't really become acquainted with soon-to-become Governor Exon, but I did know a lot of the people who were working on his campaign. And because Andrea and I were democrats and because we were odd immigrants to Nebraska, being democrats from the south, we went to a number of party activities and got introduced to people who were active in the Democratic Party and some who were very active in the Jim Exon campaign. I watched from a distance the primary where Jim Exon was running against Jules Burbach, a state senator from Crofton, Nebraska, and I noticed that it seemed to me that Candidate Jim Exon was less than enthusiastic about this new concept of consolidating natural resource regional and local agencies, and to this new approach called the Nebraska Natural Resources District. And I noticed that the Exon tribe generally was surrounded by people that I knew from a long-time project in irrigation and electric production that most old-timers still refer to as Tri-County. Now the more modern name is the accurate name, Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. So, I poked around and I found out, as a result of my research, that most of the Exon tribe had their admiration for this new natural resources commission and Governor Tiemann effort called Consolidation of Natural Resources Agencies. So, I kept my ear to the ground and I kept learning, and I kept watching what was going on. I think, if I recall correctly, that Jules Burbach's campaign manager was later to become State Senator Bill Harris and then, later, the Mayor of the City of Lincoln. I also knew that the Harris tribe in McCook, Nebraska, generally, and particularly the publisher, Alan Strong (phonetic), was no great fan of Governor Norbert Tiemann. There had developed a little dust-up between the governor and the powers that be in McCook, and the governor had made a few unkind references to McCook, Nebraska, and Red Willow County that I think referred it to a body part of the lower extremity. So, they were not happy with him and he was perfectly happy to go on about his business pursuing his efforts. And I -- if I recall correctly, the Tri-County slash Central Nebraska folks were less than enthusiastic about this concept and a lot of Jim Exon's campaign advice, and later advice to his natural resources and his state government in general, came from Phelps County in Holdrege, Nebraska, which is the home base of Tri-County slash Central Nebraska. He was also very close to a lot of the democrats in Hastings, Nebraska. Hastings is the county seat for Adams County, Nebraska, which originally, under the Tri-County plan, was to be the eastern county member of Tri-County. And so, there was still a lot of good-will within the Exon camp and the Adams County supporters of his candidacy to the extent that I often felt that some of his Adams County supports were not going out of their way to compliment this effort that Governor Tiemann was pushing to consolidate natural resources agencies of all types into districts. Low and behold, Jim Exon beats Jules Burbach and subsequently beats Governor Norbert Tiemann, the incumbent. Well, in our office, the State Office of Planning and Programming, the director's appointed by the governor because, under the law that was passed, it was the governor who was the state planning officer and so technically all of us in the employment in the office, the State Office of Planning and Programming, were direct employees of the governor. So, we all wondered what was going to happen, except for Doug Bereuter. He knew, of course, he was a goner so he diplomatically resigned his position. And because I had gotten to know a number of the people in the incoming Exon administration, they began to talk to me about the possibility of taking over the leadership of the State Office of Planning and Programming since Doug Bereuter had resigned. We later struck a deal that, because I really did not know Governor Exon, he did not know me personally, the best course of action I suggested was one he liked, which was, I would get appointed as the acting director, we'd have a shakedown cruise, he'd look me over, I'd look him over, and if things worked out then he could appoint me as the permanent head of the State Office of Planning and Programming, but if he didn't like what he saw or I didn't think I was compatible with what he wanted to do, we could go our separate ways and he could appoint someone else. Well, sort of mid-year that year, 1970, he called me in the office and said, “I like what I see. If you like what you see, let's make it permanent,” and it was. The state law authorizing the formation of the natural resources district system was passed in, I recall, in 196- --


MR. NELSON: -- 7.

MR. WILLIAMSON: 1967. It went into effect July the 1st, 1972, so you had a couple years in there that you could become familiar with it, because we were doing a lot of organizational work.

MR. NELSON: Exactly. And we were having lots of meetings and lots of organization with you, Dayle, and your boss, Warren Fairchild (phonetic).


MR. NELSON: Doug Bereuter had not only hired me in the State Office of Planning and Programming, but Bob Kuzelka, a Norfolk native, who was working in the model cities program down in Tulsa, Oklahoma, so he hired Bob, got Bob to come home to Nebraska. Doug also hired Jim Barr, who was a classmate of Clayton Yeutter on east campus and went to work on a master's program either at the University of Michigan or Michigan State, and Jim had come back and I think he was working at the Game and Parks Commission.

MR. WILLIAMSON: Game and Parks when he came to your office.

MR. NELSON: And so, he then moved to work so it was the four of us, Doug and Bob and Jim and myself. Also, the State Comprehensive Health Program was moved to our office and that was headed by a retired state senator from Humbolt, Calista Cooper Hughes, and also the Office of Highway Safety, which was headed by a retired coach and educator from Deschler, Nebraska, Dave McLaughlin (phonetic), and he had two employees, Rod Hutt (phonetic) from Grant, Nebraska, as well as Jim Wehrwein, who was a Michigan native, but served in the Air Force and got discharged here in Lincoln, where he was in air police enlisted man and he stayed here, and he worked for the Department of Corrections, which didn't have that name yet, but he actually worked out at the boys training school in Kearney with Dan McCarty (phonetic), who ran that facility. And so we all sort of became a team of about 20 people in the State Office of Planning and Programming. Jim was well-acquainted with what I'll refer to as the NRD law, the 1967 law. We knew we had the rest of '67, '68, and '69, and then the early '70s, to actually fish or cut bait on the law. I think an intern in the governor's office in 1969, who is now a senior lawyer at the Law Firm of Cline Williams, was David Buntain, and I think David was a law school intern that actually worked in the late '60s on drafting and fine-tuning the law. And, of course, there were a jillion things that needed to be done and I could sense that, while Jim and I were moving forward on the assumption that this was all going to become fully implemented in the early '70s, that we felt that we were lone rangers in the Exon administration and we needed to do some remedial education among our mates on the Exon team so that there was not a huge amount of friction or opposition. So, slowly we began to have these conversations with the governor's administrative assistant, Norman Otto (phonetic), with the governor himself, with other agency directors, and also the newly appointed Nebraska Department of Agriculture director, Glen Krusier (phonetic), who, before his appointment, was the long-time farm editor and columnist for the Lincoln Journal. In those days, there were two papers in Lincoln, Nebraska, one in the morning, the Lincoln Star, which was a Lee Enterprises paper, and the Lincoln Journal, which was the afternoon paper, which was a locally owned and operated family paper, the Seacrest Family. It wasn't until many, many years later, maybe 20 years, before those papers were merged in today's modern version, the single Lincoln newspaper, Lincoln Journal Star. So, the reason I mention Glen is that he was an actor in the implementation of the NRD legislation, but I think it's fair for me to say no huge cheerleader of this merged natural resource district concept. I think it would be fair to say that my conclusion early, in the early days of the Exon administration, was that many long-time well-respected agricultural production ranchers and farmers pretty much had an interest that was vested in many decades, either serving on these specialty boards or having friends on these specialty boards, or doing business with these specialty boards. So, I sensed, like most human beings, they felt somewhat threatened by this new kid on the block that had arrived, called NRDs, even though the new kid on the block hadn't moved in yet.

MR. WILLIAMSON: Yeah. That's good information. When you mentioned Glen Kruescher, that reminded me, in 1970, you were here and the Lincoln Journal, on July the 26th, 1970, had this to say about it, and I'm quoting, it said, “Thirty-three-headed bueratic boondogger would create a state-controlled tax-eating monster with the power of eminent domain.” So, that's some of the things you guys had to overcome there if you and Jim Barr were working hard in the governor's office to tone this down a little bit.

MR. NELSON: Well -- and, if my recollection is correct, Dayle, that may have been one of Glen's more moderate statements.

MR. WILLIAMSON: Oh, I'm sure that's right. He had a couple guys that we called the gold dust twins that he worked with so --

MR. NELSON: I understand, yes. So, slowly but surely, I think we began to sense that Governor Exon and his advisers begin to see some merit in what was taking place. And, of course, once you become governor and become acquainted with how complicated both state and local government is, you become a much greater fan of simplification and consolidation than you were as an outsider. Nevertheless, we continued to consort with the Phelps/Holdrege/Central Nebraska tribe because they were our friends. And as I said to many of my colleagues, one of my favorite expressions when the Kennedy loyalists were trying to persuade then-President Lyndon Johnson, to do something that President Kennedy, in his life, could never accomplish, which was to banish J. Edgar Hoover, it's reported to me, by people who probably ought to know, that Lyndon Johnson called them in the office and says, “Boys, it's better to have Edgar inside our tent pissing out than outside our tent pissing in.” And I felt that way about the so-called Tri-County Central mafia that we ought to work with them and not try to push back, try to understand what was the source and intensity of their opposition, and work cooperatively rather than antagonistically. Governor Exon was one to make very liberal use of their facilities so, when we would travel out there, many an evening we'd stay at their lovely lodge on Jeffrey Lake, and many very important decisions were made in the Exon administration on either Central Facilities' property or with them as active and helpful discussants as well. Dick Durmeier (phonetic) is a name that comes to mind. Frank Dragoon (phonetic) later. The banker there at Holdrege State Bank was one of Jim Exon's favorite bankers --

MR. WILLIAMSON: Mr. Hove (phonetic), was that it?

MR. NELSON: Well, no, he was Minden.

MR. WILLIAMSON: Oh, that was Minden.

MR. NELSON: He was over in Kearney County. Shep (phonetic), I'll think of his last name in a second, was the president of the bank in Holdrege and I can't recall if Shep was on the Central Nebraska Board or the NRD Commission, I don't think so, but I'll think of his last name, a very nice gentleman and sort of a well-known leader in both banking and finance. We continued to have a greater degree of support in the Exon administration. And I can't recall, Dayle, when it became really obvious that the NRDs had crossed over the Rubicon and they were going to become fully enacted -- fully active and would be the new waves, and the old free-standing specialty purpose soil and water districts of various types were either going to get merged into these newly formed NRDs or would just go away.

MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, I think we had a lot of confidence, Don, that that would happen, but just 25 days before the final implementation date, on July the 1st, 1972, a lawsuit was filed to stop everything. And that, of course -- and then, a couple years later, the Supreme Court even ruled on it. So it was -- we were confident, but it was right up -- sort of right up to the wire because we were in Lancaster County District Court just, as I recall, a couple days before the operative date.

MR. NELSON: Oh, yeah. And that was always in our mind that, if anybody spooked the governor with any of these lawsuits or gave him an excuse to be less than enthusiastic, we needed to be fully supportive and be able to jump into action and provide all the research necessary that he might ask about or ask us to go out and pull together. And he became progressively more comfortable with what was originally called the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Commission --

MR. WILLIAMSON: Commission. That was --

MR. NELSON: -- and then the Natural Resources Commission. And, you know, you and he bonded. Warren moved on to bigger and better things on the east coast, and then you took over and things just worked out well. And even though, in the early days, you were not a code agency or a gubernatorial appointee, none of us that were thought for a minute -- and treated you differently than a member of the tribe.

MR. WILLIAMSON: I went to all the code agency meetings by order of Norm Otto.

MR. NELSON: Yeah, from day one. Yeah, you were actually welcomed and encouraged to be part of the tribe so it worked out well for everybody.


MR. NELSON: Senator Exon embraced the NRDs, went on to have a lopsided and very successful second term. I moved on to Wyoming when it became obvious to me, from a conversation I had with Senator Exon, that he was going to run for Senator Carl Curtis' seat because he was retiring and I told Governor Exon that I still had two young daughters that were not going to go any further east than Council Bluffs, Iowa, so when an offer came from Cheyenne, Wyoming to join Ed Herschler's (phonetic) staff in the governor's office in Wyoming, the Nelsons pulled up stakes, moved to Cheyenne for seven and a half years, and then Bob Kerry turned the tables and hired me and drew us back. So we've had two opportunities to move to Lincoln and took them both.

MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, that's really good. Let's bounce back a little bit to the Tiemann administration. Jim Barr and I did have the opportunity to interview Clayton Yeutter, who was Governor Tiemann's chief of staff for a short time, at least a couple years, I think. And he told of how many things that that administration had, changes, including the sales tax because the tax had been voted out and everything. So, you worked for them a while and say something about the Tiemann administration, all the things going on as you came into the state of Nebraska.

MR. NELSON: Well, Nobby, by reputation, well deserved I might say, was a very progressive middle-of-the-road republican. And so he was eager to recruit bright, talented young people, including Doug Bereuter, Clayton Yeutter, Jim Hewitt, lots of other talented people, many of whom, because I worked for Doug Bereuter, helped me gain my admission to the Nebraska State Bar and Supreme Court approval of my practice of law in Nebraska. I'd been admitted to practice in Florida and the federal courts, and there was a process back then where I could be admitted -- what's called “admitted on motion” because of my prior admission and experience in Florida. And they were very helpful and they were referred to as Tiemann's whizkids from the old radio and television program of young smart people who knew a lot. And so, I was in admiration of the whizkids and they were very helpful to me. They took me under their wing and they were mentoring me. And I was really eager and making sure that my ears were bigger than my mouth and I was here to learn and it helped me a lot. And all of these things were very progressive ideas and I suppose, in many respects, that's what caused Doug Bereuter to hire me is, I shared this curiosity, I shared this eagerness to learn and change things. And what brought me to Nebraska was, I was familiar with Nebraska because of my sister and her family in Kansas, and her husband actually had spent his formative years in Hastings, Nebraska. His dad was what was called the traffic manager for the Hastings Chamber of Commerce, which, in those days, was sort of the go-between between commerce industry and the railroads, and lining up railroad traffic -- in and out traffic. So, I was intrigued when I saw this ad that Doug had placed in TAB (phonetic) and I thought, “You know, that Nebraska is a very interesting state.” I looked at Nebraska as the Athens of state government. I had a political science professor, Ernest Bartley (phonetic), who had gone to the University of Nebraska and gotten his degrees here, and he told me a lot of stories about the unicameral and about the non-partisan nature, and I admired Nebraska and I thought, “Gee, if I'm interested in state government, this is the place to go and learn because it's the Athens of state government. They invented unicameralism. They invented non-partisan legislature. They invented center pivot irrigation. They invented public power. They've got one of the best -- and, at that time, brand new educational television and radio networks. All of these interesting things are going on in Nebraska. We'll go there a couple years. I'll probably end up getting pulled into the Vietnam War and I'll either get my butt shot off or I'll come back and reclaim the family and we'll go on with life from there.” So I thought it was a great, great opportunity to come and be here, and part of that. And the Tiemann administration and their whizkids teams, and the governor himself, was a great, great introduction to Great Plains society, Great Plains culture, ethics, and it's still with me.

MR. WILLIMSON: Well, Don, you brought up many, many great things of history, which is almost a half-century ago, and it's really great for our oral history project here for the NRDs and all the other things that were going on at the same time, and your interconnection between those two governors, to make sure that that happened, because you've got to have the governor's support to get this done and you certainly need the legislature's support. As you mentioned, there was a lot of problems with the law. It needed some technical corrections as we went along and we had positive help to do those technical corrections, and everybody worked together after a while. It was tough early. Would you have anything else to add for our conversation here today?

MR. NELSON: Just for those people that may listen to this recording decades from now, take some of this with a grain of salt because, after all, there were hundreds of people that made the NRD movement the international success that it is. There were hundreds of people that worked for Jim Exon and I was just one out of many, and I'm sure there were a lot of conversations that went a long way to convince him that the future rests, among many things, within the NRD system. So, I was pleased to play a minor role. I was pleased to have great people like our team at the State Office of Planning and Programming, and all of us working together, in addition to the internal staff of the governor's office, to make this work and move forward.

MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, thank you very much for a great interview on this 18th day of February, 2014. Thank you.