David H. Nelson, a Baltimore civil engineer whose projects ranged from highways and bridges to educational and medical institutions, died Sept. 27 of cardiac and renal failure at Milford Manor Nursing Home in Pikesville. He was 96.
"He was always been fascinated by technology. His father had a Victrola, and he told me the first time he heard a record it was a recording of 'Ave Maria,'" said Mandy B. Shear, a granddaughter who lives in Somerville, Mass., and serves as the family historian. "He told me the first time he went to the movies with his brothers, horses came racing on the screen toward him, and he was so terrified that he climbed under his seat."
The son of Russian immigrants, Joseph M. Nelson, a blacksmith and drover, and Bertha Gampel Nelson, David Hyman Nelson was born in Cleveland and as a toddler moved with his family to a home on Oakley Avenue in Northwest Baltimore.
"As a child, his mother took him to the Yiddish theater on Lombard Street and loved to tell him stories such as 'The Wheel of Life,'" said Ms. Shear.
After graduating in 1937 from Polytechnic Institute, he enrolled at what is now Towson University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1941.
"He wanted to pursue engineering but first attended Towson at the insistence of his father, who wanted him to get a job first," said a son, Robert G. Nelson of Sparks, who is an engineer and theoretical neuroscientist.
"After getting his teaching degree, he taught music for a while and put himself through engineering school by playing clarinet and saxophone in a band and with additional help from his older brother Nathan," said Mr. Nelson. "Dad was an excellent musician and wrote musical scores which were performed in front of an audience."
After earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1943 from the Johns Hopkins University — where he had been a founding member of Tau Beta Pi, an honorary engineering society — he was inducted into the Army and was assigned to Langley Field adjacent to Hampton and Newport News, Va.
At Langley, his work consisted of designing wings, fuselages and other aviation components.
"Though he served his country using his marvelous intellect and expertise, he never felt comfortable about not having served in combat, as [did] some of his friends who were lost in the war," his son said. "This was a lifelong regret, which though the family felt to be unwarranted, nevertheless prompted him to refuse the draping of the flag [on his coffin] at his funeral service."
Discharged at war's end, Mr. Nelson worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which was the forerunner of what became the NASA.
After working for several years at Crout, Snyder and Crandall in Baltimore, Mr. Nelson established his own firm, Ewell & Nelson, with Worthington Ewell, a boyhood friend.
They later took on a third partner, Hank Bomhardt, and the firm became known as Ewell, Nelson and Bomhardt, which had building and highway and bridge divisions.
In 1972, Mr. Nelson founded David H. Nelson and Associates, and in 1975, after taking on a partner, Irving Kind, the firm evolved into Nelson & Kind.
Mr. Nelson worked on numerous engineering projects, including the original Friendship Airport, the student union buildings on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins and the Smith Science Building at Towson University.
He also worked on the joint Polytechnic and Western High School campus, the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, the Maryland Historical Society and Lexington Market.
His firm also worked on Charles Center and other commercial buildings within and beyond Maryland, such as the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and across the United States.
One of his more challenging assignments was to figure out how to hang a prism structure that casts rainbows all over the terrace at the theater and concert hall of the Center for the Arts at Towson University without obtrusive struts and framework.
"His solution was based on the principle employed in tongs used to hoist blocks of ice," his son said.
Mr. Nelson held a professional engineering license not only in Maryland but also in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Massachusetts, Illinois, Colorado, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Georgia and other states.
"He was a very modest person and was always lauding others," said Ms. Shear.
"There have been many occasions where my dad has given advice and guidance to friends or family and local organizations or places of worship regarding additions or modifications or repair of existing structures without regard to compensation," his son said.
Mr. Nelson was known for saying, "If you're going to do something, do it right."
"That was his creed," his son said. "One look at his beautiful design work and meticulous calculations would show how dedicated he was to his profession."
Hopkins called him in 1954 and asked him if he wouldn't mind "temporarily filling in" for an engineering professor who taught structure.
"He then taught there for 40 years," his son said, who added that his father taught two "challenging courses," Theory of Structure and Strength of Materials.
In 1980, Mr. Nelson sold his engineering company to Michael J. Walkley, one of his Hopkins students, who renamed the company Michael J. Walkley Consulting Engineers.
Mr. Nelson continued working until last year as an expert in cases involving structural defects or collapses that resulted in serious injuries or deaths.
In one case in which Mr. Nelson testified regarding an explosion and a subsequent building collapse, the jury found in favor of the widow of an employee who had lost his life.
"I was told that my dad received a check for $10,000 for his expert testimony, but rather than keep it, he turned it over to this woman," his son said.
The former longtime resident of Windsor Hills was an active member of The Associated: Jewish Community Federal of Baltimore, where he chaired many committees. He was a member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
Mr. Nelson had a great love of American history and was a supporter of George Washington's home, Mount Vernon. "The great heroes of his life," his son said, were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
He was a also a fan of classical music and of Benny Goodman.
"He is best described as a genius, a brilliant engineer, a gifted teacher, a loyal friend and a wonderful father and husband," his son said.
Services were held Sept. 30 at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.
In addition to his son and granddaughter, Mr. Nelson is survived by his wife of 74 years, the former Belle Reding; another son, Dr. Michael S. Nelson of Towson; two daughters, Alynn "Lynn" Friedman of Pikesville and Nancy E. Feldman of Lewes, Del.; a sister, Rhona Lott of Delray Beach, Fla.; nine other grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.