Dr. Walter K. Nelson, a founder and first president of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, was known for his work ethic, the scientific advancements he pioneered, and his commitment to the Jewish community.
Nelson died Nov. 22 at JFK Medical Center in Edison; he was 105.
As a chemist and manager of the titanium products division at NL Industries, which replaced lead in paint products, he held 120 patents; he also conducted research on developing the synthetic diamond.
But it was Nelson’s determination to have a Jewish house of worship in Metuchen that stood out among those who knew him.
“We in Neve Shalom were blessed through him because we learned from him regularly,” said Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, who officiated at the funeral on Nov. 24. “He was the very first president in this synagogue when it was formed on another property [1938-40]. And those were tough, pioneering days here — both in terms of Jewish population and…of the possibility of continuing this synagogue.”
Nelson did something unusual, Zelizer said, when he returned to serve another term as congregation president in 1949-51 — a very different time. “The Jewish community was expanding as Jews were moving into the suburbs all over the United States,” the rabbi said. “Jewish servicemen returned from the Second World War and were joining Conservative synagogues.”
Marvin Massey of Metuchen said his father-in-law came to the town in about 1935 from Brooklyn. Born in Providence, RI, on Aug. 15, 1904, Nelson earned a doctorate in chemistry from Brown University. After graduating, he married the former Jeanette Perlman, who died in 2000 at age 97 after 71 years of marriage.
Massey also recounted how Nelson and another Neve Shalom founder obtained a Torah scroll from a congregation in Perth Amboy and together “they somehow managed to get a minyan” inside a house. The pair was at the forefront of raising money for a small synagogue on New Street in 1939.
Later, Nelson was instrumental in securing a new home for the congregation; in 1952, according to Massey, he convinced “160 members to sign the mortgage…to get money to build the shul we have now. There have been at least two additions since then.”
Zelizer called Nelson “one of the galvanizers” in raising communal money “so that when I arrived here 40 years ago there was already a solid institution because of the kind of service that Walter gave.”
Daughter Eleanor Massey described her father as “very giving of himself,” adding that “he was a very modest person. He had a job of great responsibility at National Lead but always found time to donate to the shul.”
Another fond memory was her father’s active role in the local Girl Scout chapter — where he eventually became treasurer — something of an anomaly for a man in those days.
“He only had girls,” said Marvin Massey. “He wanted to be active in their lives….”
Nelson lived in Metuchen 70 years before moving to Edison six years ago. In addition to his wife, he was predeceased by a granddaughter, Tamara.
He is also survived by another daughter, Geraldine Alfandre Oldman of Martinsville, seven grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, and his brother, Samuel Nelson of Cranston, RI.
Funeral arrangements were by Flynn and Son Funeral Home. Memorial contributions may be made to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, PO Box 650309, Dallas, TX 75265-0309, or to Congregation Neve Shalom. Condolence messages may be sent to the family at www.flynnfuneral.com.