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Cecil County Says Farewell to Former Commissioners President and Educator Nelson Bolender, with Tears and Laughter

February 19, 2013
By Nancy Schwerzler

There were tears and laughter—much, much laughter—as Cecil County residents gathered on Tuesday to say farewell to Nelson Bolender and celebrate the life and legacy of the county’s premiere educator and government leader.

Bolender, the former principal of North East and Elkton high schools and the two-term president of the Cecil County Board of Commissioners, was laid to rest on 2/19/13 after an overflow crowd attended his funeral services at the Elkton United Methodist church. Current and former county government officials, teachers and citizens all joined together with Bolender’s family to honor his memory. Bolender died suddenly last Thursday, 2/14/13.

An honor guard of Cecil County Sheriff’s Department deputies flanked the entry to the church sanctuary, and Sheriff Barry Janney—often choking back tears—spoke in Bolender’s honor. “Nelson did more for public safety,” Janney said, “than anyone in history” in Cecil County.

On Bolender’s watch as president of the Commissioners board, the county bolstered the law enforcement officers pension program, which until that time had never had a retiree because the benefits were so low. Bolender and his Commissioner board ally, Harry Hepbron, pushed through a major upgrade of the pension system and celebrated the first-ever retiree from the county Sheriff’s department as a result of those efforts.

Janney laughed that Bolender, like himself, was a “prankster” and often pulled jokes on him. So at various public events, he often sat near Bolender, “so I could keep an eye on him,” Janney said.

Henry (“Dickie”) Shaffer, the former county Superintendent of schools who once served as an assistant principal to Bolender, said that the sudden loss of Nelson Bolender last week was “almost surreal” but that his friends and community must unite to “acknowledge the gift” of his life and service to the county.

“Nelson was unique and very much his own person,” Shaffer said. He was “intelligent and wise” and “he respected everyone.” Bolender was also “fun-loving and gregarious,” he said, and “he gave so much to others.”

But “at his core,” Nelson Bolender was “a gentleman” and “he is irreplaceable,” Shaffer added.

Two longtime family friends, Sonny Tenny and Rich Juergens, recounted vacation trips to Ocean City with the Bolenders and all three families’ children for many years. They told funny stories about how Nelson was handyman-challenged and left it up to them, and Peg, Bolender’s wife, to accomplish needed home repairs that Nelson supervised but somehow never actually assisted.

A photo slide-show tribute showcased Bolender mostly in his personal life, with more photos of him in shorts and bathing suits at the beach than many Cecil County residents might have imagined from the man most knew from his distinguished suit and tie attire in Elkton.

There were some unexpected—and funny– insights into the private side of the man who was a crucially important leader in modernizing Cecil County and leading the community from its past to its future.

The man who could dissect a lengthy government policy treatise and ask insightful questions about the most arcane points of government policy and finance matters was also secretly a fan of TV game shows and the HGTV home improvement channel—despite his friends’ laughing commentary about his lack of tool and home repair skills. And he liked to clip discount coupons and do the family grocery shopping.

Who knew?

There wasn’t a dry eye in the church when one of Bolender’s sons, Brian, thanked the community for the outpouring of support for the family in the aftermath of his father’s death. Despite the emotional difficulty of speaking at the service, he said, he must “give you a bit more because that’s what Bolenders do.”

“He loved being a Cecil countian,” Brian Bolender said of his father. “I encourage you to be the best Cecil countian you can be” and that “will truly honor his memory.”

The Rev. Karen F. Bunnell told the congregation that “God blessed all of us by putting him in our world” and “he was a gift to all of us.”

Earlier in the morning, the County Council meeting room at the county administration building—which Bolender initiated construction for to consolidate the previously fractured, multi-site government offices—was draped in black bunting in mourning for Bolender and outdoor flags were dropped to half-staff in his honor.

“I was very saddened” to learn of Nelson Bolender’s death, said newly appointed County Council member Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2), adding that the county had lost a “pillar” of the community.

Councilor Dr. Alan McCarthy (R-1), said that Bolender was “a stalwart in this community and a quite fine man.”

County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) said that Bolender “served his community in an exemplary way.” And “I don’t know there is going to be anyone who can replace him.”

But County Council members were in meetings, including closed door sessions about hiring a new Council attorney, when the services for Bolender were held.

Other county officials seen at the services at the church in Elkton included County Executive Tari Moore; county Director of Administration Al Wein; former Commissioners Harry Hepbron and Rebecca Demmler; Circuit Court Clerk Derrick Lowe; Registrar of Wills Allyn Price Nickle; and former director of economic development Vernon Thompson .

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