Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

April 7, 2000

SWAN NELSON of Portland, a 54-year member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters who's held many offices in the labor movement, took his well-deserved place in Labor's Hall of Fame by a vote of the sponsoring Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees Council.

The retirees, who meet monthly, are affiliated with the Portland-based Northwest Oregon Labor Council of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Nelson, who'll be 77 later this month, retired in 1984 after nine years as an instructor and administrator with the Job Corps, a federally-funded training program for disadvantaged youth. He started as a pre-apprenticeship carpentry instructor at the Timber Lake Job Corps in eastern Clackamas County and later helped open a carpenter training program at Springdale in eastern Multnomah County.

BORN APRIL 26, 1923 in Clark Fork, Idaho, in the Gem State's Panhandle not far from the Montana border, Swan was one of nine siblings. In high school he played football and basketball and was on a town baseball team. After graduation from high school in 1941 he went to Tacoma to work in a cabinet shop making oak desks for the U.S. Army. He joined a Millmen's local, an affiliate of the Carpenters. To get closer to home he moved to Spokane to work at a U.S. Navy supply depot. Swan was waiting for the Teamsters to process his membership application when his oldest brother telephoned to ask him to travel to Oregon to work with him on a new powerhouse at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River east of Portland. Swan joined Portland-based Operating Engineers Local 701 for the dam job.

In 1942 Nelson enlisted in the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II. The Navy sent him to Boise Junior College for a machinist course before he went through boot camp. Then he was assigned to a tanker, which participated in nine invasions in the South Pacific from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. Swan and his four brothers all served in the Armed Forces during the war, which prompted Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to send their widowed mother a letter thanking her for the Nelson family's contributions to the war effort.

AT THE CLOSE of WWII in August 1945, Nelson's tanker docked in Japan and he was able to see first-hand the devastation wreaked by the United States' atomic bombing that ended the war without it being necessary for American troops to invade the island nation. Before being decommissioned in California, his ship conducted post-war training exercises in the Pacific to teach the crews of an aircraft carrier and several destroyers how to refuel at sea. He was honorably discharged March 15, 1946 at Bremerton, Wash., wearing the stripes of a water tender first class.

Upon his return to civilian life, Nelson located in Portland and worked out of Local 701 until September 1946, when a carpentry job came his way. To take it he joined Carpenters Local 738, beginning a long career in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Another long association also began in September of 1946 - he and Jeanette Larson were married. They had met two years earlier when she and her two sisters, all Portland residents, were in Los Angeles on vacation while his ship was in port for repairs.

Nelson became active in Local 738 and through the years was elected to every office, from warden to president. He represented the local union as a delegate to the Multnomah County Labor Council (now the NW Oregon Labor Council), the Portland District Council of Carpenters (which later was taken over by the Oregon State District Council, which has since been supplanted by the Pacific Northwest Regional Council), and he also was a delegate to the Portland and Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Councils, the Oregon AFL, and after the 1956 merger the Oregon AFL-CIO. (The Portland Building Trades later became the Columbia-Pacific Council.) He was a delegate to the historic 1956 merger convention in Portland of the Oregon AFL and the state CIO.

IN 1951, WHILE STILL working full-time as a construction carpenter, Nelson was elected president of the Portland District Council of Carpenters to preside at its meetings. Three years later he was elected to a full-time job as a business agent of the council. In 1958 he was elected president of the Oregon State Council of Carpenters, which involved wielding the gavel at its sessions. He also was an officer in the Portland area building trades council and for a time served as president of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Nelson presided over meetings and conventions with an easygoing authority based on a thorough knowledge of parliamentary law, plus a sense of humor - when it came time to speed up the pace of business to complete an organization's agenda, Swan would reach under the president's lectern for a railroad engineer's striped cap which he'd don to let delegates know it was time to wield a faster gavel.

THE PINNACLE of Nelson's career in the Carpenters Union came with his election in the mid-1960s as executive secretary-treasurer of the Portland District Council. He represented the Carpenters on the executive boards of the Portland area labor council and the Oregon AFL-CIO, and served on the board of the Union Labor Retirement Association, which built and oversees the Union Manor retirement apartment complexes in the metropolitan area.

Nelson's public service included being the co-chairman, with Harold Halvorsen of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16, of a 1950s labor committee that raised funds and recruited volunteer craftsmen for construction of the first Oregon Museum of Science and Industry above Southwest Canyon Road adjacent to the Zoo. Later, Nelson served on the Multnomah County Planning Commission; and Governor Tom McCall appointed him to workers' compensation committees that studied how to make power-activated tools safer.

Looking back on his years as a Carpenters Union representative, Nelson said: "IN 1956, we negotiated health and welfare medical coverage that was a great help to all who worked at the trade and to their families. In 1962, we negotiated the pension that is the salvation of many of our members and their families.

"As a business representative I was assigned to our local apprenticeship committee, a position I had for 15-plus years. I sat as a trustee on all of our trust funds, a position that requires your attention and involves considerable responsibility.

"AS I BECAME acquainted with the business representatives attending the building trades meetings and gained their confidence, my association with them was one of mutual respect and trust. That was a most enjoyable time in my job as a business representative."

Seeking a slower pace, Nelson relinquished his posts in the Carpenters and other labor organizations in 1974, dusted off his tools and returned to the trade for a year until being hired at the Job Corps.

After he retired from the Job Corps in 1984 he spent eight years helping to serve meals to homeless and other poor people as a volunteer in the kitchen and dining hall of the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, 330 SE 11th Ave., Portland. He also contributes his time to the Union Labor Retirement Association's board, which he rejoined in 1992.

IN THE PAST FOUR YEARS Nelson has endured two bouts with cancer. He underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1996 and last year received radiation treatment for throat cancer. "After radiation and my ability to talk again, they say that visually my cancer seems to be in remission," Nelson reported.

Swan and Jeanette, married for 54 years, raised two sons and a daughter, who have given them seven grandchildren.

Their daughter, Patricia Richmire, is married to a member of Electrical Workers Local 48; son James is a public affairs manager for the Sprint telephone company; and son Chris is an account executive for Express Messenger of Portland. A grandson, Casey Richmire, a Safeway butcher, is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555. Swan has two brothers-in-law who belong to railroad unions and one who's a union longshoreman.


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