A tribute to Doc Neilson 

Doc_Neilson-web.jpgJames Warren (Doc) Neilson, Ph.D., 82, died Aug. 3, 2015 at Luther Memorial Home, Mayville, N.D. He was born June 19, 1933 in St. Louis, Mo. to Anna Lillian (Jones) and John William (Bill) Neilson, who lived in Sparta, Ill.  

Doc graduated from high school in 1951 at New London, Mo., then completed both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University) in four years. After completing the Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in the spring of 1958 he was hired to teach American history and economics at Mayville State Teachers College.   

After rising through the ranks to become a full professor and chairman of his department, Doc retired from Mayville State in 1998 after 40 years of service. He was awarded the title “Professor Emeritus of History and Economics” by the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education.

Doc authored three books. His doctoral dissertation, “Shelby B. Cullom, Prairie State Republican” was published by the University of Illinois Press. He also wrote “From Protest to Preservation: What Republicans Have Believed.” He wrote the first edition and a revision of “The School of Personal Service, A History of Mayville State College,” a history that encompassed his personal recollections. He also wrote an article on his collection of hunting-case pocket watches for the magazine Spinning Wheel.

Doc’s interests included railroads, firearms, and major league baseball. He was a member of several national history organizations and for years was the national president of Alpha Phi Sigma, a national honor society. He was also the adviser for the Mayville State chapter.    

A member of the Mayville Masonic Lodge for more than 40 years, he served as master, chapter historian, and chaplain. He was named Mason of the Year and was proud to be the Grand Historian of the Grand Lodge of North Dakota.   

Doc was an avid walker, letter writer, and reader. Losing his eyesight was a difficult circumstance that led to his move into the Luther Memorial Home in July 2013. 

Doc has no surviving family. His parents and his sister, Jinny preceded him in death, as did his brothers, Wesley and Virgil, who died before Doc was born. He was especially close to his friend and Mayville State colleague for 40 years, Dr. Merwin Lyng. Merwin, his wife, Myrna, and their children, Karen, Kathy, and John, became Doc’s family.

Doc was proud to be Karen Elizabeth’s godfather.  He was “Uncle Doc” to the Lyng children as well as to children of other friends.

Doc is buried in the Mayville cemetery, where he lies next to his sister, Jinny.

Eulogy delivered at Doc’s funeral Aug. 8, 2015

Prepared by Merwin and Myrna Lyng

Read by Myrna Lyng

As we celebrate the life of this unique man of history it is appropriate to recall how it happened that a person who spent the first twenty-five years of his life in Illinois and Missouri should spend the rest of his life in Mayville, N.D.

Merwin and I would like to share details of Doc’s life. We also have a story or two to remind you that Doc didn’t like change and that he led a rather structured life, although he occasionally professed not to.

First, a bit of history about how Doc came to Mayville State Teachers College. Doc lived in Sparta, Ill., a segregated community with segregated schools. His father died when Doc was ten years old. Doc and his widowed mother eventually moved to New London, Mo., and lived with Doc’s sister, Virginia, and her husband, Lowell. Jinny eventually lived in Fargo for 20 years, and spent her last two years at Luther Memorial Home in Mayville.   

Doc graduated from high school in 1951 at New London. He went on to college at then-Northeast Missouri State Teachers College (now Truman State University), completing both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in four years. Next he went to the University of Illinois under a Babcock Fellowship to work on a doctoral degree. 

He completed his Ph.D. in the spring of 1958. He sent his résumé to a few schools that needed a person with a Ph.D. in American history and with a background in economics. MSTC was one of the colleges.

In early August of 1958, at his home in Missouri, Doc got a call from Dr. O.A. DeLong, president of MSTC. President DeLong interviewed Doc over the phone and offered him a job.

Doc put himself and a footlocker on a train to Hillsboro, the closest rail passenger depot at the time. When his train arrived at Hillsboro President Delong was there to take him to Mayville. Talk about personal service. 

There was more to come. The president had also arranged for Doc to spend his first night in Mayville in the Northern Hotel. The Northern Hotel stood on what is now a vacant lot just north of the Mayville Senior Center.

The next day, again with the president’s help, Doc moved into a rented room at the home of Della Tolan. Her house was the one that is now owned by the Steve Bensens.

Della and Charlie Tolan, who had built the Delchar Theater in Mayville in the mid-1920s, had a large house. They had no children and Charlie had died, so Della rented the upstairs bedrooms to old Joe Simley, high school principal Bill Feeney and now, Jim Neilson.

Jim had lived there for about twelve years when Della died. The house was sold to Ken and Margit Eastman, who, with three children, needed the upstairs bedrooms. So Doc moved one block west to the basement apartment in Willman and Vivian Grinager’s home.

Doc continued to live there for the next 12-13 years. Then that house was also put up for sale, so again Doc needed to move.

By this time Merwin was in the rental business. One day Curt Larson approached him and asked if he wanted to buy a 5-plex that he and Elmer Lund had built. To make a long story short, Doc and Merwin bought the apartment house and Doc moved into one of the units.

Shortly after he moved in our daughter, Karen, asked how he liked living in his own place. He replied, “It is great.  I’m tired of moving.” He had moved twice in 25 years. As Merwin said, Doc didn’t like change.

Doc continued to live in the apartment after he retired in 1998. As a professor his day was rather structured, with classes, committee meetings and other duties. Even in retirement his alarm would ring at 6:30 a.m., he would have breakfast at 7:30, go to his office at 8:30, walk to the post office at 9:30, stop at Paula’s for a glass of milk and a sugar cookie at 10 a.m., leave Paula’s at 11, pick up his mail at 11:15, eat his noon lunch at the college dining hall at 11:45 and so on. You get the picture. Again, one day Karen asked him, “Doc, how do you like retirement?” His response was, “It’s great. You don’t have to follow a schedule.”

Most of you know that Doc wrote the first history of Mayville State as well as the updated version a few years later. He wrote other works as well, among them his doctoral dissertation which was published by the University of Illinois Press. It was a biography of Shelby Cullom, a senator from Illinois who was the father of the Interstate Commerce Act, which encouraged the western development of the United States with the development of the transcontinental railroad.

He also wrote “From Protest to Preservation: What Republicans have Believed” as well as a history of the pocket watch, which was published in an antiques magazine called The Spinning Wheel.

Speaking of writing, if you ever saw Jim’s handwriting it would come as no surprise that his fourth-grade report card showed a “D” in penmanship the first term. Evidently he applied himself, though, since he got “C’s” the rest of the year.

In his written and spoken work he crafted his sentences very carefully. As Merwin recalls, one day he and Doc were having coffee when Merwin commented that one of his students requested that he write a letter of recommendation for his file. Merwin told Doc that he didn’t know what to say because the person had not been a very good student. 

Doc replied that he, too, had had a request like that and that he simply aid, “He was a student of modest ability who unfortunately has not lived up to his promise.”

Some of you might recall that if a student offered an opinion that Doc thought was not correct, his response was “Phooey!” Talk about succinct language. 

Doc’s love of railroads was probably a result of many factors in his life. One was that his father had been a railroad engineer. Moreover, the railroad was an important part of Doc’s Ph.D. study and was a significant focus of his dissertation.

In addition to his sister, Jinny, Doc had two brothers, who both died before he was born. Since there were no nieces or nephews, Doc was the last surviving member of his family. I guess by default, our family became his family. He was an usher at our wedding and he was the godfather of our first child, Karen.

His generosity to our family extended to the children of many of his former students or those of his friends. He was known as “Uncle Doc” to our kids and possibly many others.

Doc never owned a car, although he took driver’s ed training from Mayville Police Chief Ed Fuller, so that he could get a driver’s license to use as a photo ID. He never drove a mile after getting his license. He never owned a TV, and did not read the daily newspaper. He believed that news that didn’t last long enough to make it into Newsweek wasn’t worth knowing.

Doc was a fan of major league baseball, and could quote baseball statistics profusely. Up until the leagues expanded, that is. After that happened he didn’t give a fig for baseball. (That “change” thing, you know.)

Jim also had an encyclopedic knowledge of guns, particularly rifles and shotguns.     

Although Doc walked everywhere when he lived in Mayville or when he visited his sister in Fargo, he loved to go on excursions by rail. He would travel to Chicago or Winnipeg or St. Louis or California, or to his history conferences, gladly by rail and only by air if it were absolutely necessary.

He loved to window shop along the streets of those big cities, and particularly enjoyed a good meal, complete with a glass or two of wine, at a good restaurant.   

You might be surprised to know that Doc played football in high school. He weighed 200 pounds. (He wore off that weight in graduate school, when sometimes his monthly stipend would run out and he wouldn’t eat for a couple of days at a time.) 

When it was apparent that his sight loss could not be remedied, we got Talking Books for him, so that he could at least listen to books. He had been a prolific letter writer, and that loss was felt as well. Having someone read correspondence was not quite the same as poring over it himself, and he missed being one of the post office’s best customers.

Many of you recall seeing him dressed in his tailor-made suits, complete with vest and pocket watch as he waxed eloquently in the classroom. You’ve often seen him walking in his trench coat and hat in warm weather and in his big parka and fur hat in the winter. Some of you older folks might recall that he brought a certain chuckle when he wore those four-buckle overshoes and that great big sheepskin coat in his early days in Mayville.

Doc was a “character,” without a doubt. Eccentric, perhaps. A capital “C” fiscally conservative Republican who was also a man of great generosity. He was certainly a man of habit who did not like change very much. He would happily have lived in the age of President McKinley, if he had had a choice. 

He is unique, for sure, one who left an indelible mark on Mayville State and her students. God bless his memory.

Rest in peace, Doc. 


After Myrna read the eulogy Merwin commented, “When you die a slow death like Doc did and you still have your mental capacities there is ample time for conversation.  

“In one of our conversations we talked about his private, public and professional life in Mayville.  At the end of our conversation I said, ‘You know, Doc, you have been good for Mayville and Mayville has been good for you.’

“Without hesitation he said, ‘I would like to believe the first part of that statement is true.  I know the second part is true.’”

On a lighter note, Merwin said, “As I listened to Myrna read the eulogy I thought about the students Doc and I had, who hadn’t done very well in our classes but insisted that we write letters of recommendation for them.  I don’t recall what I wrote, but I know it wasn’t as eloquent as what Doc wrote.  But I thought of what I might have said.  I could have said he was a double major in mathematics, since he took my courses twice.

“Thank you all for being here.”