Willis John Nelson, Jr.


Willis John Nelson, Jr. was born March 12, 1939, to Willis John Nelson, Sr. and Helen Erica (Wegnar) Nelson in Litchfield, Minn. He was the third of six children. Willis graduated from Crookston High School and furthered his education at Moorhead University with a degree in Liberal Arts.

In 1961, Willis joined the Military Service. He completed basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood and was stationed at Ft. Snelling, Minn. He trained for the Military Police and escorted wartime prisoners, by train, to Ft. Sheridan, Ill. Dad had a love for dogs and would pet the German shepherd guard dogs every chance he got. He completed his two years of full-time service, then his four years of in-active duty. He left the army as Sergeant First Class, with a Good Conduct Medal, Marksman Badge (Rifle) and Marksman Badge (Carbine).

Willis and wife Bonnie moved to New Effington, S.D., in 1966, then Gary, S.D., in 1975, where he was principal and taught business classes in both schools. In 1976, a hardware store was purchased in South Shore, S.D., and operated until 1982. During this time Willis became the manager of the rural water systems in Milbank, Arlington, Aberdeen and Gettysburg (Eagle Butte), where he retired at the age of 65.

Willis was a lover of the outdoors; camping, fishing and especially hunting pheasants and deer, which he shared with his kids. In the early 1980’s, Willis and Steve headed out west to hunt in the Slim Buttes area. He made up an outfitters camp and hunted the area with rural water friends, his kids and grandsons until 2012. It eventually became known as Willie’s World.

In Willis’s spare time, he was cutting down trees, tearing down houses to sell the wood, tending gardens and raising pigs with his daughter, Rene’e. Willis was also a big dog lover. He raised German shepherd pups for a few years then moved on to yellow labs. He was always seen with his dogs, especially during pheasant season.

Grandpa Woody, Hunter couldn’t pronounce Willie, and the name stuck, loved when the grandkids would visit. He would take them exploring along the banks of the Missouri River and go to museums where the boys learned what a rotary phone was! He would take them out for ice cream. They would play in the orchard, play checkers and learned to clean chickens. Cody and Hunter would go out shooting when they were younger, then fishing and hunting deer and turkey when they were older. Every year during hunting season, the boys were with him at some point or another. He shared his love of nature with them, along with several valuable lessons.

In January of 2018, Willis moved into the Fergus Falls VA Home. He passed away peacefully in his sleep on Dec. 7, 2020. Willis is survived by daughter Rene’e (Tim) Backman of Lake Preston, S.D. and son Steve Nelson of Elbow Lake, Minn.; grandkids Cody Backman of LaPorte, Colo., Hunter Backman of Fargo, N.D., Charles Backman of Watertown, S.D., Kayleen Huerta of Brookings, S.D., Eileen Backman of Fargo, N.D. and TJ (Kristen) Backman of Sisseton, S.D., along with several great-grandkids; sisters Gaylis Miho of New Brighton, Minn. and Nancy Bowker of Hickory, N.C.; brothers Eldon (Sandy) Nelson of Fridley, Minn. and Gary Nelson of Mariposa, Calif., along with several nieces and nephews.

Willis was preceded in death by his parents, Willis and Helen; and sister Robyn Santillanes.

Visitation will take place from 1- 2 p.m. with a prayer service at 2:00 p.m. on Sun., Dec. 27, 2020, at the Glende-Nilson Funeral Home in Fergus Falls, Minn. 

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