By Stephanie Rebman
Lee County Neighbors
David Neilsen is a man of action.
Whether he’s running, strumming an instrument, memorizing lines for the Tupelo Community Theatre or leading a meeting of the Tupelo Luncheon Civitan Club as its president, the 64-year-old is constantly on the move and using his time and talents to better the community.
Neilsen moved to Tupelo with his wife after a successful career in the Navy to teach computers at Itawamba Community College. When he retired from the classroom, he searched for his volunteer home in Tupelo.
“I visited a couple of civic organizations,” he said. “At one of them I asked them what they did and they said we give to this and we give to this and we give to this. I asked again what they did. They repeated what they give to but not what they did. When I visited the Civitan Club I asked what they did. They said they usher at the coliseum, do fruitcakes, sweet potatoes. They listed some of the things they supported, and in that I found something to be active in and accomplish something for the community.”
A lot of his volunteer activities revolve around Civitan. For two years he was the Mississippi North District Junior Civitan chairman, and even though he’s not serving in that leadership role, he’s constantly gathering support and helping the high school group.
“That was a real chance to help young people in citizenship and leadership,” Neilsen said.
Another one of Neilsen’s influences on the Civitan Club came before he took the reins as president. He took his passion for running and found a way to make a difference in the community – by pushing disabled youth in specially made wheelchairs during his marathons.
He’d pushed wheelchairs in the GumTree race ever since 1991. When a bank that sponsored the wheelchair races dropped its funding, the Civitan Club took over. It’s sponsored six races a year the past two years.
“What we really, really want is to reach out to anyone who is developmentally disabled who would like to take part in these races, who is under 150 pounds,” he said. “We’re trying to bring these to kids to give them more opportunity. A lot of these kids can’t take part in the Special Olympics.”
Neilsen said seeing the joy on their faces in the race, “makes what you do much more gratifying.”
It can “turn me into a puddle,” he said. “After I pushed for the first time, it was like I would do this for the rest of my life. When we could touch their lives, there’s just no feeling like it.”
Neilsen started his first career in the Navy working on aircraft electronics and taught electronics. But, his fun began in 1998 when he became the executive officer of a law enforcement security unit.
“I started taking law enforcement training,” he said. “In that I got anti-terror and force-protection training. I was fully qualified in February 2001 and after 9/11 they took my unit and sent all of us overseas.”
Neilsen went to a naval installation in Greece and wound up working security for NATO. The U.S. was tasked with all the security in the area, but eventually it was turned over to the law enforcement in Greece.
“I feel like I accomplished more on that tour of duty than I did in all of my career. That was the best,” he said.
He performed another security detail on an American submarine based in Italy and retired in 2006.
To keep his brain and body in tiptop shape now, he runs an average of 20 miles a week, plays the hammered dulcimer, a mandolin and is determined to learn how to play a pedal steel guitar. He also does yoga when he can.
“It’s helped me a lot,” he said of yoga. “So has running. Anything that keeps you physically fit.”
Keeping his mind sharp is a priority too. He does a lot of memorization. For Veterans Day in honor of the veterans in Civitan, he recited the entire “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and currently is working on memorizing the Declaration of Independence.
Memorizing lines for plays with Tupelo Community Theatre also is high on his list of priorities.
“When I retired from ICC three years ago, I went to Tupelo Community Theatre,” he said. “The first one I did was Ann of Green Gables,” he said. “I was the male lead. That’s the way to start theater, I tell you.
“I’m just trying it keep my mind going,” he said. “I know eventually I’m gonna lose it, so I just keep it active.”
Contact Stephanie Rebman at (662) 678-1585 or stephanie.rebman@ journalinc.com.