E-mail and faxes flow from Bernie Nelson’s office after janitors have left for the night.
Nelson’s boss calls it evidence of “an intense inner drive.” Employees call it a workaholic streak that doesn’t quit.
The 70-hour work weeks that made Nelson a taxpayer’s dream will end May 1, when he retires as the top regional administrator for the Department of Social and Health Services.
It’s a job that Nelson, 69, helped create in 1972 and has held ever since.
Just a month ago, Nelson swore he’d never quit. He’d be carried out of his east Spokane office feet first.
On Friday, he said he will at least satisfy a longtime goal: four decades as a state employee.
“At 40 years of service and nearly 70 years old, I think I’ve accomplished most of what I wanted to,” he said.
“I asked them if I could come back and work part time at 40 hours a week, but they said ‘Get out of here.”’ With 480 employees and a $130 million annual budget under his control, Nelson is credited with launching many of the programs that help Spokane’s poor.
He earned a shelf of awards and a personal pat on the back from Gov. Mike Lowry. A trio of local tribes assisted by his office have named him an honorary elder.
Retirement won’t end the long hours, he said.
Instead, his favorite charity - in addition to his garden and grandchildren - will now get the brunt of his energy.
He plans to volunteer at Hospice of Spokane, which helped Nelson’s wife during a struggle with breast cancer. She died in 1993.
“I think he’ll leave paid public service, but he won’t leave public service,” said Carol Felton, director of DSHS’ community services division in Olympia. “Bernie has the deepest inner drive that I know of.”
A Spokane native and former paperboy, Nelson graduated from North Central High School in 1946 and from Whitworth College in 1952.
After earning a graduate degree and working briefly as a psychiatric social worker, Nelson joined DSHS management ranks in 1958.
Despite remaining in his hometown far from DSHS headquarters in Olympia, Nelson rose through management ranks.
One official said Nelson’s experience made him one of the state’s most influential people during the recent overhaul of state welfare programs.
His frank criticism of government bureaucracy is surprising from a career civil servant.
In a 1992 Spokesman-Review editorial on “reinventing government,” Nelson wrote: “I agree with these authors who state the people who work for government are not the problem; the systems in which they work are the problem!”
Nelson’s successor will be selected by April, said Felton.
Nelson said he wishes the public would view government officials as public servants, rather than bureaucrats. “All of us owe our country a debt of service of some kind,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo