A Cambridge resident who put smiles on the faces of thousands of people with a simple wave has passed away.
William “Willie” C. Nelson, 66, of Cambridge, passed away Aug. 25. Nelson was a resident of GracePointe Crossing Gables East and became an instant “celebrity” after a picture of him waving to people along Highway 95 was posted May 31 on the Isanti County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page and instantly went viral, reaching over 264,000 people.
Nelson leaves behind a daughter, Debbie Lentsch and her husband Mike Lentsch of Cambridge, and a son, Tom Nelson, and his wife Jenny Nelson of North Branch. Nelson also leaves behind six grandchildren, from oldest to youngest, Matthew Rassett, Brittany Rassett, Anyssa Rassett, Devon Rassett, Donavan Nelson and Danica Nelson.
A Celebration of Life for Nelson will be held at 2 p.m. Sept. 23 at Lion’s Park North in Taylors Falls. Anyone that would like to come and help the family celebrate the life of Nelson is more than welcome. It is a potluck, so bring a dish to share.
Nelson moved into GracePointe Crossing at the end of October 2016. He had lived in Oklahoma when he got sick in July 2016, and was well enough in October 2016 to make the move to GracePointe to be closer to his son and daughter.
The family is mourning the loss of Nelson.
“It was completely unexpected,” Lentsch said. “We are still in shock and trying to deal with it the best we can. My father had a unique personality that is hard to describe exactly. He had a very good sense of humor and loved to make people laugh.”
A local tribute to Nelson was held Sept. 5 when the staff of GracePointe Crossing and members of the community came together in the afternoon on the front lawn of Gables East and held a massive “waving” session as the school buses departed with students finishing up their first day back to school.
“Our message to the community is to keep the #belikewillie movement going, as we are reminded we can have a better day just by sharing a wave that may put a smile on someone’s face,” said Julie Tooker, community relations director for GracePointe Crossing. “Willie started something here at GracePointe Crossing and we want his example of showing kindness to continue in our community.”
Lentsch said her father enjoyed making a person’s day better.
“My father was used to living on his own and being able to do what he wanted, when he wanted to. Moving to a nursing home was a very hard adjustment for him. He had felt confined and didn’t like that feeling,” Lentsch said. “When he was able to go outside and wave at people, he was not only brightening their day but his own as well. He was happy just to make someone’s day a bit better because he smiled and waved at them.”
Nelson enjoyed making a difference in the community.
“My dad was so proud that he had made a difference in the community by waving and smiling at people during the day. He really loved sitting out there and watching everyone go by and being able to get them to smile and wave back,” Lentsch said. “My oldest daughter, Brittany, is so happy that he received such a warm welcome from the community. We all loved that he was getting so much attention and that people would stop by with homemade cookies and treats for him and to just visit with him. He loved to meet new people and to tell his stories.”
The staff at GracePointe Crossing enjoyed their time with Nelson.
“Making one person smile can change the world. Maybe not the whole world, but their world. This was the case with Willie,” said Campus Administrator Brandi Barthel. “He started waving to cars one day and intended to make people smile and his world changed in the process. He taught us all a lesson, that a small act of kindness can touch so many lives with just a wave and a smile.”
Lentsch explained her father loved Harley Davidson motorcycles, semi trucks, making people laugh and served in the United States Marine Corps.
“My dad loved bringing us on motorcycle rides. He had a Harley Davidson most of his life and loved bringing us for rides with his friends,” Lentsch said. “He also loved to bring us camping, fishing, and hunting. He loved getting us involved in all his hobbies.”