Mark Rondeau holds up the new sign for the Friendship Center on Eagle Street, now named after one of its founders, the late Al Nelson.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It was nearly a decade ago that Al Nelson, Mark Rondeau and Steve Green huddled in a corner after a Northern Berkshire Community Coalition forum on hunger.
Mayor Thomas Bernard said he had a clear memory of that conversation and a feeling in the room at First Baptist Church that something should be done. And on a cold snowy day in 2011, the Friendship Center Food Pantry opened in 800 square feet on Eagle Street.
"We know it thrived because of that hard work," he said. "Because Al Nelson never did anything halfway and he didn't let anyone around him do anything halfway."
Nelson's work on that project and his inspiration within the community in leading by example won't be forgotten. During a tribute on Monday night for Nelson, who died in July at age 83, the pantry's new name was revealed as the Al Nelson Friendship Center.
"We're here because the community needs Al Nelson," Rondeau, a longtime friend, told the more than 70 people who attended the gathering at First Baptist Church. "Who he was, what he stood for and what he did and he tried to do. How he treated people are signposts along the way in troubled turbulent times."
Arlon Edward "Al" Nelson adopted the North Berkshire community more than 50 years when he came to work on the local radio stations. After 20 years as program director at the former WMNB, he left to become the executive director of the Northern Berkshire United Way.
Described by friends as a kind man but one of steady action and integrity, Nelson was an empathetic ear to the troubled and adviser and mentor to many.
Bernard noted Nelson's time in the Marine Corps and the strict code of honor that he carried into this work, his church and his volunteer efforts. He held people accountable for their actions and expected the best, leading by example.
Those are the qualities he gave to the community from his work with Northern Berkshire United Way, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, the Friendship Center, the radio, Bernard said. "He saw a problem, he identified a solution and made a positive difference."
In addition to his involvement with the food pantry and expanding its collaborative efforts, Nelson started the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative with Rondeau; partnered with the Letter Carriers' Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive; was a regular member of the Community Coalition's monthly forums; and became concerned with an increase he'd seen in homelessness through the Friendship Center that resulted in the Northern Berkshire Housing and Homeslessness Collaborative.
"I always looked to him for support and inspiration," she said. "He knew what really needs taking care of."
He'd often stop in to ask questions and offer ideas, always "the best ideas," Collier said. "We'll never know all the stories of the wonderful things Al shared with people."
A number of friends shared some thoughts about his kindness, his caring and his super organizational skills. There was nothing he was not involved in, said his longtime friend Steve Green.
Three words summed him up, he said. "Gave a damn. Al gave a damn. What an example he has been over the decades."
Rondeau recalled his humor — cheerful "needling"— and that he only heard him get angry at Williams College football games and occasionally at the Red Sox. He was meticulous and precise and could spend an inordinate amount of time just writing a note.
"Al did nothing in a half-baked fashion," he said. "He wasn't falsely humble. He knew exactly who he was and what he was about."
He was also, Rondeau said, "A man of faith. It was non-negotiable with him."
Nelson was "one of the best Christians I ever met," he said but not because he wore rose-colored glasses but rather because he saw reality and responded to the problems he saw.
Bernard also thanked Anne Nelson, his wife of 52 years, for sharing her husband with the community for so many years.
"We know that Al loved this community and that we loved him," he said. "But we also know he was the love of your life and you were the love of his life."
Rondeau gave her a photo album filled with pictures he had taken of Nelson over the years. A portrait of Nelson was also commissioned from Alison Kolesar from a photo of him at the pantry.
"We're here to ensure in our small way that Al Nelson is remembered and he remains a known example to be imitated," Rondeau said, adding, "We need to take this with us and keep the spirit of the story of Al alive."
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