Fred Nielsen, a 74-year-old retired U.S. Marine Corps major, is widely known in Glen Cove. He can often be found at city veterans or Boy Scout event. Carrying a clipboard, Nielsen takes note of people he meets.
As a veteran himself, he says it is especially important to make sure that every veteran is recognized for his or her service, and that by doing so, the city’s youth can learn from them. Nielsen often refers to veterans as “living history.”
The Herald Gazette is proud to name Nielsen its 2020 Person of the Year.
“Fred Nielsen has really dedicated his time in our community to making sure that veteran issues are brought to the forefront, as well as the Boy Scouts,” Mayor Tim Tenke said. “Fred has always been available to the city to help out with color guards, any type of parades or ceremonies. Fred always dedicates his time to make sure we do it correctly, and that the branches of our armed services are represented, and represented well.”
Nielsen, who grew up in Vero Beach, Fla., enlisted in the Marines at age 19, went to boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., and served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968. He was trained to be an electrician, and learned other trades as well. He stayed in Vietnam for three years, he said, to keep his younger brother, Carl, out of the war under the Sole Survivor policy. Nielsen said he tried to stay in Vietnam as long as he could, but eventually was told he could not return — and that was when his brother enlisted.
“My younger brother had joined the Marine Corps,” Nielsen said. “I was at his graduation in Parris Island. I was home on leave at that time. Three weeks after he got into … Vietnam, he was killed.”
Nielsen said he often wonders what Carl would have accomplished. “He had such a great mind,” Fred said. “He was a real people person, too.”
In the 1980s, Nielsen served in Washington, D.C., in a ceremonial capacity. Among his duties were organizing parades at the Washington Monument, and taking part in funerals for Marines at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1984, he became the director of the Emergency Supply Operations Center at the Defense Logistics Agency. During the 1980s, Nielsen said, there was an advocate for homeless people in Washington named Mitch Snyder. Among the homeless were veterans, Nielsen said, and with his insight into resources that could be of help to them, he wanted to see what he could do. But that required breaking some rules.
Nielsen, in communication with Snyder, distributed surplus cots, blankets and other supplies, to shelters around the country. When shelter workers would thank Nielsen for the supplies, he’d say “Don’t thank me. You have to thank the secretary of defense.” Then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger began receiving thank-you letters from homeless shelters across the country, Nielsen said. “He was saying, ‘Wow, what’s this all about?’” Nielsen recalled.
“I tell people I was in Vietnam, and that was a very important way to serve at that time,” Nielsen said, adding that Weinberger invited him to his retirement party. “But the thing I enjoyed the most was helping homeless vets across the nation.”
Nielsen retired in 1986, and he wanted to spend time with his four children from a previous marriage — Kathy, Vicki, David and Patrick — who had moved to Glen Cove from Virginia in 1985.
“During the summers [in Glen Cove], I became an assistant scout master for my son’s scout troop,” Nielsen said. Among the members of the troop was a boy named Thomas, whom Nielsen drove home from scout camp one day. He met Thomas’s mother, Theresa, who would eventually become Nielsen’s wife.
“As it turns out, Theresa and I began to have a relationship, and I said to her, ‘Things have changed,’” Nielsen recalled. “‘I used to see you as Thomas’s mom, but now I’m seeing you as a woman, and I don’t know if that’s OK.’ She put cream in my coffee and said, ‘That’s just fine with me.’”
The couple married in 1997, and Nielsen later adopted Thomas. “What a fine period of my life that would begin,” Nielsen said.
He joined American Legion Glenwood Landing Post No. 536 in 2015, serving as a chairman of the Americanism Committee, and also co-chaired the Children and Youth Committee for the Nassau County Committee of the American Legion from 2010 to 2015. He was chairman of the Glen Cove Memorial Day Parade Committee until 2018, and in the past couple of years, with the Rev. Roger Williams and Deacon Sheryl Goodine of First Baptist Church of Glen Cove, and American Legion Young-Simmons Post 1765 Commander Dave Hubbard, Nielsen founded the Harlem Hellfighters Citizens, Soldiers and Patriots Advisory Board.
The 369th Infantry Regiment in World War I, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was an African-American Army unit. In 1981, the Army assigned the unit — 31 of whose members were from Glen Cove — to the French Army for the duration of American participation in the war, because many white American soldiers refused to go into combat with African-Americans. Despite the unit’s successes in the war, its members returned home to face racism and segregation.
At an event in 2019 at the North Shore Historical Museum, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi presented the family of the late Sgt. Leander Willett, who served in the Hellfighters, a long-sought posthumous Purple Heart. Nielsen, who attended the event, had recruited then 16-year-old Dominick Williams — the Rev. Roger Williams’s son — to appeal to Suozzi to apply for a Congressional Gold Medal for the soldiers. Suozzi said he would present his Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act to Congress. If it were to pass, a medal would go on display at the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington. The bill, as of press time, is currently in its introduction stages.
It’s not uncommon, Nielsen said, for veterans to continue serving others, especially other veterans, throughout their lifetimes. That eventually led to his involvement with Boy Scout knot board presentations.
A knot board is often assembled by a Boy Scout and then presented to someone to honor his or her achievements. “I tell them, ‘I will not tie a single knot on this board. I will teach you, but only your knots can go on the board,’” Nielsen said. “Then when it’s done, I say, ‘I cannot present this. This is your board. Only you can present it.’”
Among the knot boards presented this year by scouts in Glen Cove’s Troop 6 were to lifelong resident and retired firefighter Francis Uhlendoft, 92, and World War II Navy veteran and lifelong resident Robert Praver, 95.
“[Nielsen] involves children in the creation of [the knot boards] to give them an understanding,” Williams said, “[and] to appreciate those who are, particularly, veterans and others who have made contributions to society.”
“He’s truly an asset to the City of Glen Cove,” Tenke added.