Amherst Fire Chief Walter ‘Tim’ Nelson to retire in June

Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson

Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson in the Amherst Fire Station.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson in the Amherst Fire Station. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-17-2024 5:04 PM

Modified: 04-17-2024 5:12 PM


AMHERST — Fire Chief Walter O. “Tim” Nelson, who has led the department since early 2010, will retire from the position at the end of June, bringing to a close a more than 43-year career in fire services in which his emphasis has been on helping others, including those in the community and those with whom he works.

“The best part of the job is the connections and using those connections to take care of people,” Nelson said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Nelson’s retirement was announced by town officials publicly on Wednesday, though his pending departure hasn’t been a secret, as he walked with a farewell sash in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Nelson, 67, came to Amherst after 29 years with the Holyoke department, where he rose to deputy chief.

“I really feel I’ve been part of two great fire departments,” Nelson said.

He also honors his late parents through his work. “If I can have an effect on some of part of the world to make it better, I like to think I’m honoring their memory,” Nelson said. “There is nothing better than to help people.”

A search for a successor is expected to begin immediately.

In a statement, Town Manager Paul Bockelman praised Nelson’s strong leadership of the Fire Department since replacing Keith Hoyle in the role.

“He has ensured that the community has received the highest level of fire and emergency medical service throughout his tenure,” Bockelman said. “More than that, however, Tim is a recognized leader in the wider community, projecting a moral authority few achieve.”

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Two years ago, Amherst officials successfully sought legislation so he could remain fire chief past his 65th birthday.

“One of the big reasons I stayed on was because of COVID and the need to have a transition plan in place,” Nelson said, noting that staff couldn’t get the exposure or training they needed to prepare for the department’s next chapter.

“I had a lot of help along the way, from folks who have helped me, and I tried to be a person who can give someone guidance and to give them advice, to realize what their potential is and to be the best they can be,” Nelson said.

In announcing his decision to Bockelman, Nelson wrote a note sharing his fire safety origin story:

“On Dec. 6, 1981, a skinny kid with a lot of hair walked into the Holyoke Fire Department headquarters for the first time. I was given a mop and directed to the second floor to start mopping. After seeing Capt. Stanley Sadikerski pushing a broom, this new kid realized that it wasn’t ‘people’ from the outside who kept the firehouse clean but we firefighters who lived there. An hour after I walked in the door, I knew the fire service was where I belonged.”

Bockelman noted that over his 14 years, Nelson has advocated for and secured additional staffing for the department, gotten money to upgrade the fire and ambulance equipment, and instilled a sense of purpose in the staff, reminding them that firefighters and paramedics often encounter people on their worst day.

Bockelman also praised Nelson for his other service, helping nonprofits in town to achieve their missions and recently stepping up to co-lead the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service.

“The room lights up when Tim walks in. He exudes positivity and brings a relentless sense of optimism and a can-do attitude to every challenge,” Bockelman said.

Town Council President Lynn Griesemer, too, expressed her appreciation.

“When Chief Nelson, known to all of us as Tim, joined the Amherst Fire Department, we gained an immensely treasured and valued member of our team,” said Grisemer, who first worked with him closely while chairing the Department of Public Works/Fire Advisory Committee. “I gained insight into his significant knowledge of Fire and EMS services; his priority for the safety of our residents and staff; and his commitment to excellent service.”

Town officials also noted how Nelson would always speak with the elementary school children as they finished fire safety studies and mentored the student firefighters from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and area colleges.

In addition to his professional work in fire services, Nelson serves in the Civil Air Patrol Massachusetts Wing, and since 1991 has flown aircraft, maintained planes, supported emergency management teams, assisted with search and rescue operations, taken disaster photos, conducted damage assessments, and taught many people the safe way to fly a plane. He is now a colonel and wing commander and will remain in that leadership position through at least the end of the year.

A celebration of Nelson’s tenure is expected at the end of June, with retirement party details to be put on the town website.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.