Ronald Nelson, former Berkeley police chief. Photo: Alameda Health Systems
Ronald Nelson, former Berkeley police chief. Photo: Alameda Health Systems

Ronald D. Nelson, who served as chief of the Berkeley Police Department from 1982 to 1990, died Monday while on a walk with friends in Tilden Park. He was 82.

Nelson had a long and distinguished career in public safety. He began his career in 1956 with the Los Angeles Police Department, where he served 21 years and rose to the rank of Lieutenant.

He retired from the LAPD in 1977 to serve for two years as a police commander with the Compton Police Department. He left briefly to be chief of police of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in Riverside, California, and then returned to Compton in 1980, where he was appointed assistant city manager. He became city manager in 1981.

But Nelson couldn’t stay away from his love of police work, and, in 1982, he accepted the position as police chief of Berkeley overseeing a 300-person department. When he retired eight years later, Congressman Ron Dellums entered a document detailing Nelson’s distinguished career into the Congressional Record. Nelson then  became the chief of police for the University of California, San Francisco, where he served for 12 years. He retired in 2003.

Nelson received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology and Criminology from Drake University and a Master of Arts Degree in Public Communications from Pepperdine University.

Ronald and Barbara Nelson. Photo: Nelson family
Ronald and Barbara Nelson. Photo: Nelson family

Nelson was married for almost 60 years to his wife, Barbara. They had two children, Rhonda and Harold, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The extended family was so close they gathered for dinner together each Sunday, including the day before Nelson died.

Nelson was athletic throughout his life and particularly loved hiking, biking, and fishing. He went to the gym every day. Every Monday for the past eleven years, he and a group of friends ate breakfast together and then went on a walk in the East Bay hills. Their hikes were about eight to ten miles long and ended with lunch.

Nelson had almost completed his hike on the Nimitz Trail at Inspiration Point on March 10 when he collapsed and died of a heart attack around a half a mile from the trailhead, according to his daughter. Two of his friends performed CPR, but were not able to revive him.

“He was a human dynamo,” said his friend, Ben Tucker, who was with him at the end. “He was so diverse in his interests that he had passion for — deep sea fishing, biking, hiking, travel, civil rights. He had his hand in all those areas, always at the leadership level. But he was also a team player.”

Nelson was active in community affairs. He was a longtime trustee of the Alameda County Medical Center, the California Hospital Association, Satellite Housing, and he was past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officials, among other affiliations.

In 2010, Nelson, who was a member of the UC Berkeley Police Review Board, served on an independent investigative commission that examined how the UC Berkeley officials and the police department handled the 2009 student occupation of Wheeler Hall.

Nelson was also a long-time member of the Berkeley Breakfast Club, and one of three sitting or former Berkeley police chiefs in the organization, which meets each Friday at 7 am at the Berkeley City Club. He created the club’s annual Black History Month celebration, which was always a club highlight. He was also chair of the Peralta Community Garden.

Nelson’s friend Willis Shalita remembered him on his website, A Rwandan Voice:

“Ron was not a quitter. His heart quit on him. He never saw a trail he did not like, a hill he did not want to climb, a valley he did not want to cross, to appreciate God’s handy work.

On my maiden hike after joining my “Negro Brethren” as I later came to fondly call them, I watched Ron painfully push himself beyond expectations for a man his age. He was my inspiration, my drive. His persona will forever be a note in my life’s song.

Ron’s passing leaves a wound in my soul, because he was the gentlest soul I ever met. A gentle man, indeed, a Gentleman.”

Tucker and other friends hope to dedicate a bench at the spot at on the Nimitz Trail at Inspiration Point where Nelson collapsed.

Update 3/21: There will be a memorial service for Mr. Nelson on  on Saturday, March 29, 2014, at 10:00 a.m at the First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way.

Feel free to share your messages of condolence and/or memories of Ron Nelson in the comments.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...