We're never really ready for the news and then when it hits the shock just numbs us. On Tuesday, I drove by my old office at the now vacant Aegis building at 10 Hays St. and turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue as I've done so very many times, looking to the right at the back porch of the Risteau Building, to see if Steve Nelson was standing there waiting for the bus to take him and others back to Aberdeen.
So it was that at that very time, around 2 p.m. Sept. 25, 2012, paramedics were responding to a call of an "unattended death" on Law Street in Aberdeen. Steve had been out the previous night, came in about midnight and was not seen alive again.
His brother, Stanley, broke the news, telling me the Aberdeen police said there was no sign of "blunt force trauma" or "foul play," tentatively setting the cause of death as a heart attack. The body was taken to the State Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore for an autopsy.
The end of the trail comes to a truly well-known, gifted, character of our Harford County. In some ways Steve's passing, alone, in his own bed, maybe was the way it was meant to be. My son, Sam, said when he learned of Steve's passing, 'Well, dad, this was a long time coming." He was right. Steve Nelson was a man I was privileged to know, as I'm sure there are others who feel the same. And maybe even more who didn't like him. What he lacked in conformity, he made up for in soul.
The story of Stephen Douglas Nelson, born Dec. 7, 1950, is one of many sides, and ultimately, if he'd ever been arrested and sent to jail, the Bel Air home he had lived in might still be in his family. Strange as it seems, police and locals alike were sympathetic to Steve and his beleaguered brother Stanley.
Steve's parents, Stanley and Ertie Walls Nelson, owned the home at 16 South Atwood Road. When the parents died, the home was left to the younger Stanley Nelson, so Steve would "always have a home." But Steve let some bad types stay in the house. Neighbors complained and, eventually, the Feds came in, raided it and took the house. Stanley was left without his rightful inheritance, and the United States Marshals Service sold the property for $80,000 to a Bel Air insurance agent on April 28, 2003. Stanley could never afford to buy the house back in today's market, not that he would if he could.
Steve's days as a controversial figure on South Atwood had come to an end. He moved into the Holly Hills Motel, in Aberdeen. From there, he bounced from group home to group home in Aberdeen, never to return to live in Bel Air, his hometown. He was in failing health, suffering with emphysema and poor nutrition. His smoking and drinking didn't help either, but as many know, smoking and drinking are the plague of the down and out sometimes.
Leo Matrangola, Bel Air's current chief of police, is two years younger than Steve and grew up knowing of Steve very well. "After his mother died, Steve became a total nuisance. Between January, 2000 and August, 2001 there were 75 police responses to his house. Everything from dog fighting, fun fire, disorderly persons, drug dealing, medical assistance. I told Steve and Stanley this had to stop; it was affecting the entire neighborhood. There were many warnings, and finally, our department issued a 'zero tolerance' policy," according to Matrangola.
"Steve would let anyone with drugs use his home, and one of them was a police informant, and when we learned of drugs being brought to the house, Judge Angela Eaves signed a search warrant and we carried out a raid which led to his arrest and others. The house was forfeited to the Federal Government, and on June 5, 2002, the U.S. court noted the owner did not file a claim on the property, he defaulted, so it went to auction," the police chief explained.
Matrangola, however, was sympathetic with Steve's predicament. "Steve put people in fear, because of his abnormal behavior, irrational personal behavior, unsanitary conditions of the house, criminal elements hanging out there constantly, just how much could the neighborhood take, after all the warnings something final had to be done. Steve never sold drugs, I know this, and if he had and he had been sent to jail for it, the house might still be in the Nelson family," according to Matrangola. "It is unusual the way it turned out, but he didn't help matters any."
His older brother referred to him as "Steven." When Steve signed his name, it was all one word, "Stephenelson." Steve also had an older sister, Joyce.
"When he was 7 years old my parents gave him a ukulele for Christmas. He hit a couple bad notes, then took it outside where we were shoveling snow, and smashed it to bits," Stanley recalled.
In the 10th grade, Steve was sent to the Maryland Training School for Boys because of truancy. While there he learned to box. He served his time and in 1970 his mom bought him a VW Beetle. Soon after, he was involved in a serious accident, hitting a tree, totaling the VW and landing in the hospital in a coma for 22 days, according to Stanley.
"After the recovery from the wreck is when it all started, the paranoid-schizophrenia and poly-substance abuse. Steven was going to the college and had over 60 credits in sociology. Then Dad died in 1988, and Mom in 1991. Their will stated a 'life time living right' for Steven to stay in our home, until he died. It was my inheritance for taking care of him," Stanley remembered.
While there were many who would just as soon cross the street rather than meet eyes with Steve, there are also some folks who have a fond remembrance of Steve:
"Over the years of working in Bel Air each day, I would see Steve sitting alone in the Pizza shop that used to be the Bata Shoe store," recalled C. John Sullivan Jr., former head of the county and state tax assessment departments. "Most everyone who walked past him gave him wide clearance, going out of their way to keep their distance. I would stop and sit for a minute or two just to see how he was doing, an odd sight to some I am sure with my ever present necktie and Steve dressed in a somewhat different style.
"When Steve left Bel Air, I kept that piece that appeared in The Aegis that was entitled: Character Leaves Bel Air [published at the time of the eviction from the Atwood house]," Sullivan added. "In any event his story should be told because few – very few – really knew him."
"I have many memories of Steve; we always considered each other friends," wrote John "Rooster" Adams, of York, Pa. "When my sons were small we would sometimes go to Fortunato's [now Buontempo's] for pizza and we would often run into Steve there. He would sit with us and share our pizza. Our friend Joe has a line – 'ain't no guarantees' – so goes the life of Steve. We can only be grateful for our blessings and help others when we can. 'He who stands on tiptoes is not steady – Lao-Tzu.'"
Word of Steve's passing will travel through the community and this article is but a fond farewell to a friend. Many others have already contacted me to share their thoughts about Steve and no doubt his legacy will continue.
The infamous "Maggie May" connection must also be told. Steve used to proclaim that he, "Bel Air's own Steve Nelson," actually wrote the classic 1971 rock song for Rod Stewart. The song is a huge piece of music, and I guess Steve used the line to wow the gals early on.
"Steven actually dated a girl by the name of Maggie May, and all the stuff in the song was about the two of them," Stanley recalled. "At the time Steve was playing bass in a rock band called Blues British. He was playing with all older guys. They played a lot in Baltimore, could have gone big time, but it just fell by the wayside."
I tried to nail him down one day to confirm if it was really true what he claimed about the song, whose authorship is credited to Stewart and British guitarist Martin Quittenton. He said he'd forgotten he'd written it. Another mystery in the darkness that was Steve Nelson. Yet, far from being a shadowy figure, Steve Nelson emitted a genuine light of humanity that we all could learn from. May his light shine on.
Todd Holden is a writer and photographer from Bel Air.