Gary Nelson retires from American Family Insurance

By Mary C. Hunt

With a career spanning seven decades, Gary (Corky) Nelson retired on Wednesday, October 31, 2018, after 47 years as the American Family Insurance Agent in Martin. Through the years, people’s needs for insurance have remained pretty much the same according to Nelson, but he has seen significant changes in the technology. When he began his career in insurance, he provided policies and processed claims on paper and now uses a computerized system. 

Recommended by a friend to Michael (Jack) DeFea, then district manager of American Family Insurance, Nelson began supporting Bennett County residents with insurance products in 1971. In November 1980, he purchased the current American Family office building from Richard and Lucille Dale.

One of the six children of Melvin and Helen (Westbrook) Nelson, he was born and raised on the family’s ranch, which was founded in 1929. A 1953 graduate of Bennett County High School, Nelson began his working life away from his parents’ ranch with the South Dakota State Highway Department. His early career also included working as a fieldman with the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, now known as the FSA, measuring wheat crop acreage, walking fields with a measuring wheel.

When his wife, Dorene, and he came to live on the ranch his parents had founded, they farmed sheep with flocks averaging 400 head. He recalled a blizzard decades ago when he had a flock of ewes with new lambs who took off in the wind, ending up in a field across the road from the house. Loading little square bales of hay into his pick-up, he led the flock back to the barn they had escaped. He continued working sheep for a few years after joining American Family but ultimately retired from sheep farming in order to devote his attention to his growing insurance business and civic responsibilities.

Active in the Jaycees and Knights of Columbus, Nelson also served as chairman of the Bennett County Hospital Board and was a member of the South Dakota Public Television Board and the Bennett County School Board. He served on the first Markota Acres committee, working with others to plan and fundraise for the initial construction.

A lifelong Democrat, Nelson served the 28th District (Bennett County) in the South Dakota State Legislature for the 64th and 65th State Senate Sessions (1989-1990). He also was chair of the Bennett County Democratic Party and over the years advised candidates on running for office.

Members of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Nelson and his wife of 63 years, Dorene (Williams), raised six children and have 11 grandchildren and one great grandchild. 

Mr. Nelson has no specific plans for his retirement other than relaxing with Dorene and continuing to meet twice daily with his coffee group at Bros. He’ll be keeping sharp with word search puzzles.  

When asked what it was like working for almost 50 years providing his clients with the kind of peace of mind that comes with insurance, he said, “It was a good feeling to help the community not only with insurance, but also with advice.” 

Nelson greatly appreciates his many loyal clients through the years. He hopes that he’ll be remembered for his good relationships with people and for treating them fairly. His advice to youth and young business owners is simple: “Be a good person.”

Michael Holzwarth, a Rapid City American Family Insurance agent, will be opening his agency on November 1 at 203 W. Pugh Street.

502 Second Avenue, Martin, SD 57551 • 605-685-6866 •