LIMA — Lima police patrolman Tom Nelson stationed himself in an alley behind the Brass Rail bar at 26 Public Square on May 17, 1959, while his partner, Patrolman John Wetzel, went inside to investigate a complaint about an armed man.
The armed man, James Monford Lee, got the jump on Wetzel, holding the patrolman at gunpoint until he could work his way to the rear door of the bar and then into the alley — where Nelson was waiting.
Nelson, The Lima News reported, “saw Lee fleeing from the door and managed to take a .45-caliber automatic from Lee during a fight which sent Lee to the hospital for eight days.”
Nelson, one of the few African-Americans on Lima’s police force at the time, patrolled Lima’s downtown, at first on foot and later in a patrol car, during the 1950s. The tedium of the job was occasionally punctuated with violence, such as the incident at the Brass Rail, which made interesting copy for the inside columns of the newspaper. Nevertheless, Nelson stuck with it, serving on Lima’s police force for more than 34 years and rising from rank of patrolman to lieutenant.
Thomas Kenneth Nelson was born Nov. 18, 1924, in Lima to Tom and Bessie Bonita Buchanan Nelson. He attended Whittier Elementary School and South High School, from which he was graduated in 1943. In high school, he was a member of the track team and participated in amateur boxing matches, a piece of information Lee could have used when deciding to flee the Brass Rail.
Nelson also was active at Bradfield Community Center, serving on the center’s student council and participating in various youth clubs. A March 10, 1940, photo shows Nelson among a group of “earnest aviation enthusiasts” building model airplanes. An accompanying story noted that Nelson and the other boys were members of the Facion club at the center, which “is particularly designed to meet the needs of the 1,800 Negroes in Lima, but is open to anyone interested in participating.” Nelson remained active with Bradfield throughout his life.
Immediately after graduation from South in 1943, Nelson entered the military. On Sept. 1, 1943, the News reported that Nelson, “the eager young aviation enthusiast,” was among four Lima men transferred to Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, for training with the Army Air Forces. Nelson, who was trained as a diesel mechanic, was stationed at Okinawa, Saipan and in the South Pacific.
He emerged from the military in March 1946 as a staff sergeant and enrolled at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky. On Aug. 13, 1950, in a column titled “News in Lima Colored Circles,” the News reported Nelson’s June graduation from Kentucky State. “Thomas Nelson got a bachelor of science degree with a major in mathematics. He also received a teaching certificate.”
June 1950 was a big month for Nelson. On June 14, 1950, he married Ora Ethel Stockton at a ceremony in Glasgow, Kentucky. The young couple returned to Lima where Nelson found a job at the Lima Army Tank Plant.
In 1952, Nelson took the Civil Service examination. “Five of the 14 men who took the Civil Service examination for Lima police officer passed the test and physical examination, the board announced Saturday,” the News reported April 20, 1952. “Top man with a grade of 102 percent was Thomas K. Nelson, 1703 S. Main St. Nelson as well as three others received extra credit for military service.”
Nelson’s early years on the police force were eventful. He was suspended briefly in September 1952 after scuffling with two fellow officers over the handling of an early morning disturbance at a downtown gas station.
In December 1955, Nelson and Patrolman William S. Sowers found a car that had been used in an earlier grocery store burglary behind one of the suspect’s homes. “The 1950 model sedan was locked and apparently empty,” the News wrote Dec. 7, 1955, “but when the officers flashed their lights inside they saw the suspects huddled on the floor.”
When the suspects ignored orders to unlock the car and attempted to drive away, “Sowers and Nelson opened fire,” the newspaper reported. “Five bullets punctured the radiator and motor of the car and others slammed through the body. The four suspects leaped from the car and fled on foot as the officers emptied their pistols after them.” They were later apprehended.
Two months later, in February 1956, an alert Nelson, who was checking on cars in the northeast quadrant of the Public Square, noticed a license plate had been altered. Three men were arrested and their car searched. “A complete outfit of safe-cracking tools — drills, punches and other instruments — was found in the trunk of their car when it was searched, according to police,” the News noted in a Feb. 7, 1956, story.
“During later years he rode a cruiser patrolling various sections of the city,” the News wrote in February 2014. “Having been born and raised in South Lima, he was well respected by the residents there. He patrolled that area a number of years with his longtime ‘cruiser’ buddy Louis Hamilton. During the ‘60s when the mood of the country was not favorable toward police officers, he maintained the respect of the black population and played a significant role in keeping the peace.”
In August 1966, Nelson was promoted to sergeant and in July 1973 to lieutenant. Of the five black officers on the Lima Police Department’s 94-man force in June 1972, three held supervisory rank, including Nelson. He retired Jan. 1, 1986.
Nelson died Feb. 25, 2014. He was survived by his wife and a son, Kerry.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.