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Ex- Cardinal Nelson to be inducted into Space Hall of Fame: Mustangs rally

George Nelson, a three-sport athlete at Willmar High School, will be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 2.

He graduated in a class of 301 students in 1968. His nickname, "Pinky," remained with him in space and through life.

Classmate Riley Nelson, a retired dentist and university instructor, attended all three of his best friend's orbital flights.

Pinky knew his destiny from an early age as this story points out.

"I remember back when we were in junior high," recalled Riley by phone from Tampa Bay, Fla., where he and his wife Jill welcomed a new grandchild. "Pinky and I were laying on a haystack or something and looking up at the stars and Pinky pointed out Sputnik and said something like 'I'm going to be flying up there some day.' "

The ceremony at Kennedy Space Center will place the Willmar native's name among space pioneers like John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong.

Pinky lettered three times in baseball, twice in basketball and twice in football.

He found time for choir and band -- he played the cello -- and was class president all through junior high and high school.

"He was driven and very smart," said local car dealer Mark Roth, a teammate on the basketball squad that lost to three-time state champion Edina in the Region V final. "He was a tough competitor but a true sportsman. I'd say he was a gracious competitor."

Riley said he'll never forget watching that first liftoff from the family viewing area on April 6, 1984. As the great ship thundered into the bright morning sky, George, senior, was overwhelmed and collapsed to his knees in pride and thanksgiving.

Pinky orbited again in January 1986 and once more in September 1988, the first mission flown after the Challenger accident.

Over those three flights, he's walked in space for 11 hours, flight tested a jet pack, operated an IMAX camera, deployed and repaired satellites and conducted experiments in astrophysics.

Duaine Amundson was a left guard that helped make daylight for the Cardinals' starting fullback (A fullback named "Pinky"!). He was at the Cape for Pinky's first flight with other classmates.

"He was a leader in everything he did," said Amundson, vice president for real estate at Heritage Bank. "He led by example; he never flaunted (his success)."

Bob Hodapp, a Willmar physician, said it is wonderful news that his classmate is headed for the HOF.

"He deserves it," said Hodapp, a three-sport athlete) in high school. "He was on some pretty exciting missions, especially right after Challenger. But we're all still mad at him for not showing for our 40th reunion (last August)."

The future astronaut had scholarship offers to several prestigious universities, but he selected obscure Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., with its focus on math, science and engineering.

He was on his way to the stars. He followed up an undergraduate degree in physics with a master of science, plus a doctorate in astronomy at the University of Washington.

Nelson was named an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978. He would go on to log 411 hours in space.

The Class of 2009 also includes William Shepherd and Jim Wetherbee. They will bring the number of space explorers enshrined to 73.

Dr. Nelson and his wife, Susie, a California native, have two adult daughters. They live in Bellingham, Wash., where Pinky is a program director in the Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education at Western Washington University.

Nelson was not available for comment.

The Willmar Mustangs amateur football is holding the first Rock and Jock Bowling for Food Fundraiser at the Kandi Bowl on Saturday. The Hours are 5-8 p.m. with a free will donation along with three items of food for the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

The Mustangs, who begin their six-game schedule on May 9, are also selling raffle tickets.

Team owner and general manager Travis Szczesniak of rural New London said he's hopeful the new league will keep growing. He has help start teams in Brainerd and Melrose and would like to add Hutchinson and Marshall, as well as other towns.

Pitcher Callie Nelsen and third baseman Andrea Brown, both juniors, are having a terrific spring at Gustavus Adolphus. The Gusties swept a twinbill from Saint Mary's on Sunday to extend their winning streak to 18 and MIAC record to 16-0.

Nelsen pitched five-innings of three-hit, shutout baseball for the win in Game One. Brown was 2-for-6 on the day.

Gustavus (17-1, 28-4) split with St. Thomas (16-2, 32-4) on Tuesday. Nelsen didn't pitch; Brown was 1-for-4. She has started every game.

Two Ridgewater College athletes recently were honored by the MCAC.

Sophomore pitcher Heather Thoma (Willmar) was named Week 2 Southern Division Pitcher of the Week for going 3-0 with 19 strikeouts and one walk ... Sophomore Justin Schroeder (Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City) was hailed as "Southern Division co-Pitcher of the Week in Week 3 after getting a save and throwing a two-hit complete game.

No Cardinal athletes have so far made the Central Lakes' spring honor list.