Sheriff Nelson, a local Rodeo Legend Nelson. In the summer of 1977, I was freshly back from a couple of years vacationing with Uncle Sam when my father-and-rodeo-committeeman, Sheriff Les Nelson, told me that “they” (the committee) wanted me to sing the National Anthem at the Cowlitz County rodeo. At 21 years old, and having been a singer all of my life, I agreed. How I got that honor is a bit of a story...sheriff My dad was a cowboy; he was also a real-life sheriff.

He grew up on a farm in Colorado and at one time was the foreman of a cattle ranch with roughly 15,000 head of cattle. He knew a lot about livestock, but horses were his real love. He was never without a horse around up until the last few years of his life when he could no longer care for them. He learned to shoe horses when he was a young man and when he moved to Washington that was how he made his living. He charged $2 a head. That’s a lot of work for a couple of bucks.

In 1950, he went to work for the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy. Like all deputies, he alternated between working patrol and the jail, where he met my mother. (She wasn’t an inmate but he always had a grin and a twinkle in his eye when he told people how they met, but that’s another story) Dad spent most of the next 36 years with the Sheriff’s Office. He was first elected County Sheriff in 1974 and served three terms; retiring in 1986. He was known most notably for his common-sense approach to life and law enforcement.

During the period both before and after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, Dad’s sensible, yet firm, stance on restricting people access to areas within the red zone is credited with saving scores of lives when the mountain erupted on May 18, 1980. In spite of dad’s busy schedule as an elected official and law enforcement officer, having helped start the rodeo at the fair, he remained very active with the rodeo committee. He loved the planning, the preparation, the time being around what he truly loved; the feel of the west, the tempered strength and power of the stock horses, and the snotty disposition of a good buckin’ horse or bull.

All that to help you understand that when dad asked me to sing the National Anthem at the rodeo, there was no way I would or could ever say “No.” Beginning with that first call in 1977, and from then on, each year dad would call and tell me that “they” wanted me to sing again, and I always agreed. While I knew the others on the committee wanted me to sing as well, I also knew that “they” was dad. He never said it; he never needed to. I’ve been singing the National Anthem for 36 years now. I would be at 108 rodeo performances were it not for the two I missed, one while away at the police academy, and the other when I was on-duty and delayed by a call, arriving moments too late. In addition to singing at the rodeo, I have been honored to sing the anthem at state functions, community events, and twice at the Babe Ruth World Series.

One of my highlights was singing the anthem at the NFL Seattle Seahawks home-opener in the Kingdome in 1988. The rodeo committee gave me a nice plaque on my 20th anniversary of singing. I thought I was done then and someone else would take over, but the next year dad was on the phone again. I’ve been asked to keep on singing until “they” tell me otherwise, or I just figure it’s time. While dad’s not around anymore, being at the rodeo he helped create and being part of it by continuing to sing the National Anthem keeps he and I connected in a special way.

But that’s not all; I’m in my 30th year in law enforcement and just like dad, I serve as the elected County Sheriff and have since 2009. Same office, same desk. I don’t know as much about horses as dad did, but I know this: It’s been an interesting ride, and it’s not over yet. See you next year at the Thunder Mountain Pro Rodeo! ~Sheriff Mark Nelson



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