California native and record holder for most Summer Olympics attended shares memories

By Jeremy Nobile | Stow Sentry Published:

Stow -- Harry Nelson has acquired an unequivocal number of indelible memories since visiting 186 countries and attending 18 Summer Olympic Games throughout the last 80 years.

When asked which experience has been the single most memorable, Nelson, 90, sits slightly farther back in his seat and gazes upward, reflecting intently and thoughtfully.

"That's a question I've never been able to isolate an answer to," he said.

"He's had so many special moments, it must be impossible to rank them," said Chad, Nelson's son, during an interview with Harry at Chad's home in Kent.

Nelson holds the Guinness World Record for attending more Summer Olympic Games than anyone on Earth, and the California native shared his experiences with a room full of locals Dec. 27 during a "Living History" session at the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library while visiting family in Kent for the holidays.

Nelson has a ceremonial torch used to light an Olympic flame, countless photos, athlete autographs, 8mm films and a book about his experiences titled "Following the Flame: A 76-Year Olympic Journey."

He'd even have a letter from former President Jimmy Carter urging him not to attend the 1980 games in Moscow because America was protesting the Soviet war in Afghanistan at the time -- but he tore that up when he received it without a second thought.

But after a lifetime's worth of adventures, what matters more to Nelson than any tangible memento from the Olympics are the friends and memories he made along the way.

While competition has been an underlying factor of the Olympics since the games were first conceived, Nelson believes the true purpose of the games is to bring people together.

Coincidentally, that's exactly what the Olympics have done for him, personally, as he's made friends all over the planet.

Nelson went to his first games at just 10 years old in 1932 when the games came to Los Angeles -- his family lived in the Southern California suburb of Huntington Park in Los Angeles County at the time.

He grew up in a poor family. His father had lost his job during the Great Depression just a few years earlier. So, it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when his mother acquired four tickets to the 1932 games that were being given away.

"I had no intention at that particular time to go to all the games," said Nelson, confessing a only a minor interest in the Olympics as a child.

His family didn't go in 1936 when the games were in Berlin, and the Olympics were canceled in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II.

Nelson, who became high school friends during band with Uan Rasey -- a famous musician best known as the first trumpeter in the MGM studio orchestra in the '50s and '60s where he played for several movie soundtracks and The Jack Benny Program -- eventually had an opportunity to go the 1948 Olympics in London with Rasey, who secured tickets.

"But I still didn't think it would ever happen," Nelson said. "I still didn't have any money to go."

Nelson sold his '37 Chevy to his uncle for $600 to make enough money to go.

During those Olympics, Nelson made friends with famous Finnish sports authority Lauri Pihkala.

"He said, 'You're coming to the Helsinki games in '52 aren't you?' I said sure. He reaches into his pocket and hands me his business card and says, 'Look me up,'" Nelson recalled. "I wanted to meet people from around the world, and here's a guy who I've never met before, but he's inviting me to come back to see him."

That experience, along with a love of track and field, is what convinced Nelson to attend as many Summer Olympic Games as he could -- and he's been going ever since.

His favorite games, though, were the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, which served as a late honeymoon for him and his wife Dee.

Nelson broke his own record last year after attending his 18th Olympic games in London, and he still plans to attend the games in 2016 in Brazil.

Over the years, the Nelsons have made numerous sacrifices to continue the Olympic tradition, but they'd have it no other way.

"I'm nosey," said Nelson with a laugh. "This was the best way for me to see the world, and there's a lot to see."

Email: jnobile@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400, ext. 4179

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