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Bob Lind, Published October 13 2012

Lind: Highway patrolman from ND responded to infamous accident

Ron Nelson was a member of the crew of the USS Vestal, a repair ship that was tied up to the battleship USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese struck.

Ron was playing tennis on the base when Japanese planes roared over, strafing the tennis court. Ron escaped injury. But the Arizona was sunk, and the Vestal was damaged.

That story alone would be enough to make his grandchildren proud. But what made Ron famous much later – or rather, who made him famous – was a man who a California newspaper says Ron transformed from being merely another Hollywood actor into an icon.

Many accidents

Ron was born in 1918 in Coleharbor, N.D., north of Washburn. He was about 20 when he enlisted in the Navy. After the war, he joined the California Highway Patrol.

He lived in Atascadero, Calif., near San Louis Obispo. It was the San Luis Obispo Tribune that carried Ron’s story.

The Tribune said Ron responded to many accidents in the county he was covering. In 1955, in fact, there already had been 26 traffic deaths there. But it was No. 27, the Tribune said, that would change his life.

On Sept. 30, Ron and another trooper were dispatched to a highway intersection where a Ford had collided with a Porsche.

The Ford had been driven by a college student. The Porsche had been driven by actor James Dean.

The student survived the crash. But Dean died from his injuries.

A crushed car

Ron, the Tribune said, “helped write what would become one of the most famous accidents in CHP history. His photos of the crash site also became famous, although he didn’t profit from them.”

The photos showed Dean’s roadster had been crushed “like an aluminum can,” the Tribune said.

Over the years, Ron and his fellow officer were often asked to speak about the accident.

In 2005, county supervisors honored both officers for their work in “one of the most notable accidents in San Luis Obispo County, reminding us of the absolute need to drive safely and responsibly at all times.”

Ron died Aug. 7, a week after having a stroke. He was 94.

He is survived by Genece, his wife of 65 years; two children, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

His son Rolfe, who once was mayor of Atascadero, told the Tribune that Ron “was a great father, and he was a very special man to a lot of people.”

Everyone liked this man, Rolfe said: the man who started his life in a North Dakota town and who became well-known because of his link to the death of a famed actor in California.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com