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Mona R. Nelson, longtime executive director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society, dies at 56

WILLMAR -- Mention someone you're researching at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society in Willmar and chances are Mona Nelson could tell you the township where the person lived.

Nelson had a tremendous knowledge of Kandiyohi County, says historical society volunteer Dorothy Olson, who returned to Willmar six years ago after a lengthy absence.

"We'd come across a name of a town that's not there anymore, and she'd fill me in on the history of that place,'' says Olson. "It was always interesting. I thought I knew Kandiyohi County, but after I've been out here, I found out I didn't.''

Nelson, who had served as historical society executive director since November 1979, died early Wednesday at her Willmar home after fighting lung cancer for the past couple of years. She was 56.

The funeral will be at noon Saturday at United Lutheran Church of Lake Lillian. Visitation will be one hour before the service at the church. The church is handling arrangements.

Ben Thoma, Kandiyohi County Historical Society Board president, said Nelson provided valuable long-term direction to the historical society, which Tho-ma says the society is still largely following.

He said Nelson came up with many ideas for exhibits in the historical society's museum. Nelson would find someone who could do it and then "let them run with it,'' he said.

Thoma said the board's executive committee will meet next week and discuss filling the vacancy. Thoma thanked curator of collections Andria Olson and dedicated volunteers for helping run the museum.

Mona Rae Nelson was born Sept. 29, 1951, to Eldon "Fat'' and Juliette Nelson and grew up at Big Kandiyohi Lake. After graduating from Bird Island High School in 1969, Nelson earned an associate of arts degree at Willmar State Junior College in 1971, earned a bachelor of arts degree from Hamline University in 1974 and a master of arts degree from St. Cloud State University in 1995.

Nelson spent nearly all of her career in public history, including 28 years at Willmar. She also served two years as part-time museum aide and curator of the Nicollet County Historical Society Cox House; worked two years under a federally funded program to organize the Kandiyohi County Historical Society's collections and library; and taught anthropology part-time at Willmar Community College.

Nelson was well-known among historians. She was a member of national and state public history associations and served as a board member and officer of the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums.

She was a volunteer, past board member and officer of the Humane Society of Kandiyohi County. She provided foster care for dogs, and played a role in founding the discount spay-neuter program.

In recent years, Nelson assisted the Willmar Design Center with historic preservation and downtown revitalization projects. Also, she was active with the Willmar Area Food Shelf and other local groups.

Associates say Nelson was a deeply spiritual person with a strong and abiding faith. She was proud to call herself a liberal and was proud of her family's distinguished military service.

Nelson is survived by three sisters: Sandra Curran of Jacksonville, Fla., Jackie (and Cleve) Powell of Jacksonville, Fla., and Candy (and Lon) Gass of Olivia; and one brother: Eldon (and Donna) Nelson of Belview.