David M. Nelson

David M. Nelson

The world has lost a warrior. 

David M. Nelson, 56, died peacefully at home with his family and faithful dog, Rico, following a four-year battle with stage 4 colon cancer.

David was born on Nov. 8, 1963, in Ann Arbor, Mich., to John and Mary Ellen Nelson. He was the eldest of two brothers. As a young boy, David lived in Holland where his father was a researcher and spent his late childhood and early adolescence in New York before moving to Washington State. 

David graduated from Hanford High School in Richland, Wash., in 1981. He attended Washington State University where he obtained a degree in Anthropology and later completed a Master’s degree in Public Health through the University of Illinois, Springfield.

David joined the Peace Corps after college and was placed on Wotho Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The only non-native on his island, David taught school and spent countless hours spear fishing, catching coconut crabs, snorkeling in crystal clear water and throwing rocks at the rats that congregated amongst the palm frond thatch of his hut. 

It was a life-changing experience that he referenced often, and it was during this time that he met some of his closest and dearest friends.

David married his wife, Sandy Besel, on April 29, 1995. Though they had known of each other in high school, they reconnected in the early ’90s when David was working for Office Max and Sandy was attending medical school at the University of Washington. Their first date entailed David “tenderizing” an octopus for curry by beating it with a rock in the parking lot of Sandy’s apartment complex. 

Needless to say, re-entry into normal life after the Peace Corps was a challenge.

Following their marriage, David’s life and employment pursuits were dictated by Sandy’s medical training and career. This took them to New Zealand, New Mexico, Idaho, Wisconsin and eventually to Cody in July 2013. David thrived in all of these locations and made a life for himself and created meaningful friendships wherever he landed. 

In New Zealand he worked in public health (a little) and worked a lot at fly fishing. In New Mexico he worked for the Lead Program and played basketball with his “homies” on Albuquerque’s south side. In Idaho he worked for Idaho Fish and Game and became somewhat of a local celebrity as the Hunter Education Coordinator for the northern panhandle. 

Unable to find work in Wisconsin, he furthered his education and took to the rivers where he floated with the kids and fished for musky on the Chippewa River. In Wyoming, David treasured his time outside and loved living up the North Fork. He landed a job as a substitute teacher and grew to adore the kids he worked with and the staff who treated him like one of their own.

David and Sandy were blessed with two children, their daughter Jordan in 2000 and their son Garrett in 2004. David took pride in being a stay-at-home dad and what his kids lacked in terms of good nutrition, dry diapers and common-sense safety they more than made up for in adventure.  

Together they hunted frogs, explored the forest, napped in meadows, drank lots of Fanta and always had a thrilling/chilling story to share with mom when she got home from work.

David always said that he had not been very successful in life but that he had had a good time. His life read like an adventure novel complete with harrowing hunting tales, shark pursuits and “near death” rafting mishaps. 

He traveled to over 70 countries in his lifetime and was fortunate to climb sand dunes in Namibia, fish for piranha in the Amazon, see Machu Picchu (twice), sail on the Nile in a felucca, ride camels in Morocco, elephants in Thailand, snorkel in Fiji, hike on the Great Wall, raft in Nepal and experience sunrise in Petra, Jordan and sunset in India at the Taj Mahal. David was an intrepid traveler and would insist on going “native” wherever he would go.

David’s personality, along with his appetite and love of food, loomed large. He was candid, intense, frequently “unfiltered” and often politically incorrect. Yet despite his candor and unconventional approach to life, he had an incredible gift when it came to connecting with people and never met anyone with whom he could not find something “in common.” The lives he touched were numerous and varied.

David was profoundly influenced by his time overseas and by his father who died in April 2019. He embraced life and was an avid learner. He was never without a project, a book or magazine (typically the Economist) to read and cycled through a myriad of “obsessive” interests, the most important of which were his love for Oceanic art, working on his “barn find” ’78 Porsche and kayaking on the Shoshone River. 

David considered himself a bit of a Renaissance man and was happy to share his life and esoteric “knowledge” with anyone who would listen. He loved Culver’s Concrete Mixer’s, Michael’s Tacos, a good dark beer (preferably consumed at a pub in Ireland) and anything from WY Thai.

David loved his family and friends. He adored his younger brother, Ethan, and spoke fondly of their childhood antics and fishing trips together. He was a dedicated son, nephew and cousin. 

Visits to the Nelson home were always action packed and inevitably included a rodeo, steaks on the barbecue, shooting off the back deck and a raft trip on some nearby body of water.

David cherished his children, Jordan and Garrett, and left them with many fond and occasionally “traumatic” memories of epic hikes, wild river trips and unending bike rides. He gifted his daughter his love of the water and spirit of adventure and gave his son his Porsche and plenty of inspirational material for his music. 

To his wife, he left photo albums full of exotic adventures and the experience of being married to a “best friend.”

David lived by the motto that “Nelsons don’t have secrets and Nelsons aren’t pansies.” He was true to both until the end. David’s courage was admirable and his faith deep. He embraced life and lived it with both grace and reckless abandon. He loved to tell stories (often embellished and frequently repeated) and encouraged others to create stories of their own. He will be greatly missed.

David is survived by his wife, Sandy, and his children Jordan and Garrett of Cody, his mother Mary Ellen Nelson, brother Ethan (Kristi, Grant, Mason), his father and mother-in-law, Lee and Janet Besel, and brother-in-law Darrell (Amy, Marlee, Roslynn) Besel all of Washington. Additional aunts, uncles, and cousins reside in Washington, Michigan and Florida.

Arrangements have been made with Ballard Funeral Home. A Celebration of Life will occur later this summer. In lieu of flowers, donations made be made in David’s name to the School Nutrition Program at PCDS No. 6 to provide meals to students during the COVID-19 crisis. Checks may be mailed to Park6-f2s, 919 Cody Ave., Cody, WY 82414.

The Nelson family would like to thank the Cody community for their love and support during this journey. We have been particularly blessed by the members of Trinity Lutheran Church, the students and staff of the Cody public schools and the Cody Kayak Club.  

(3) comments

Aidan Gallagher

I knew Mr. Nelson through school when he substituted, and he was always a great person. He would always be nice to all of us and have some jokes along the way. I am very sad he passed away and will miss him as a substitute.

Gunrunner Auctions

David Nelson was a great, great man. Family man. Great husband. Full of enthusiasm from his adventures in 70 different countries, safaris in Africa and his beloved white water sport. The children of Cody loved him as he was an exceptional teacher - a gentle giant of a man with stories and examples he shared. That smile! That voice! He was a natural teacher and high motivator!

David was a neighbor of ours up here on the North Fork (he lived seven miles from us) and we had the great pleasure of hosting him during one of his last evenings with our many friends and our PH from South Africa. David traded African stories with all, shot the African rifles one last time and we ate elk tenderloins and had some spirit water. Many laughs! We did not want him to go that night and he was the last one to leave.

We watched his truck lights wind down the mountain one last time. We miss him and his example. He was one of a kind.


I did not know Mr. Nelson, but this wonderful tribute, capturing his spirit so eloquently and joyfully, made me wish I had known him. This stranger wishes the family peace.

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