PORT ORCHARD — Members of the Port Orchard Rotary Club gathered on Saturday, June 2, to dedicate the roundabout at the intersection of Bethel Avenue and Mile Hill Drive in honor of Niels Nielsen, a world-renowned Rotarian from Denmark.
To mark its significance, a new granite stone marker on which his name and Rotary affiliation was scribed, had been put in place.
In honor of Nielsen’s heritage, Rotary’s Mark Grimm said Denmark’s flag was hoisted during the roundabout’s dedication to fly alongside the City of Port Orchard flag and his adopted and much-loved country’s — America — flag. But the handsome stone monument was the focus of the dedication ceremony.
“The partnership between the Port Orchard Rotary and the City of Port Orchard has allowed the development of an outstanding feature for the enjoyment of South Kitsap residents,” Grimm said.
Grimm said Nielsen was instrumental in helping many Rotary Clubs get their start — both in Port Orchard and Bremerton — and also throughout the world. Nielsen, known by many as the “Great Dane” because of his Danish heritage, died in 2010. The Port Orchard City Council named the roundabout in his honor the following year.
Born in Kalundborg, Denmark in 1932 and raised in Copenhagen, Nielsen was a member of the World War II Danish resistance movement before he was a teenager. He emigrated first to Canada, then later to the United States when he was in his twenties. Nielsen and wife Margie later moved from Los Angeles to Aberdeen, Washington, then on to Kitsap County, where he became CEO and general manager of Bremerton’s Olympic Savings in 1972.
He left banking in 1976 and operated his own real estate and property management company in Bremerton, Niels G. Nielsen Services, now headed by son Erik.
Grimm said Nielsen later expanded his Rotary Club service to an international stage, traveling to St. Petersburg, Russia. And in Vietnam, he led the “Kids First” mission to assist Vietnamese youngsters who had been injured from stray artillery shells left over from the Vietnam War.
“He was over there so often connecting with the kids and doing such great work,” Nielsen’s son, Paul, said.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that his father was the personification of a “people person.” He said his father — whom he labeled a “character” — enjoyed meeting with, talking and becoming friends with anyone who reciprocated.
“He was exuberant, happy, boisterous, flamboyant and about as energetic as could possibly be,” Paul Nielsen said. “He was a worldly guy respecting all people of all cultures and very interested in learning about any culture he was not familiar with.”
And as significantly, his son said, Niels was interested in helping those wanting to better their condition. And the more colorful they were, all the better.
He said that as Rotary’s program coordinator, Niels was legendary for welcoming guests to the organization’s meetings who lent a “shock value” to the proceedings: He once invited a guest — a Mafia member — who was later “silenced.” Another time, he brought in a criminal — a bank robber the elder Nielsen had once hired at his bank. Then there was the prostitute spearheading an initiative to decriminalize the world’s oldest profession.
That a roadway section was named after him, the son added, would have greatly tickled the bon vivant. He often alluded to a road in North Kitsap — Nels Nelson Road — and professed excitement that it so closely matched his name.
“Dad would be most ‘exuberantly’ honored to know that the roundabout was named in his memory and to see the granite piece whenever driving through,” Paul said.
The dedication ended with a flourish when Paul led the group in a traditional Danish toast — a special honor that his dad “was especially skilled at,” his son said.