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Hiking trails at the Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve. An august Wyoming museum’s exhibit of tribal artifacts. A locals’ mom-and-pop ski hill. A downtown splash-pad for kids. The University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources.
These divergent enterprises share a commonality in benefactor Jim Nielson.
They are among the mountain of Wyoming causes Nielson, an accomplished businessman and Cody pillar, supported before his death in November 2022 of heart failure. In his generosity, he exerted a quiet but significant influence on the northern Wyoming community and the entire state, friends say, with a legacy that will outlast his 91 years.
“There wasn’t a project around that he wouldn’t support,” his son Jay Nielson said. “If you wrote him a letter asking for a little bit of money … there were very few projects or foundations that he wouldn’t just write a check to.”
But “he was never a guy with the humble brag,” said Bruce McCormack, the former longtime editor and publisher of the Cody Enterprise. Though most people enjoy or expect credit for good deeds, “you had to pry [them] out” of Nielson.
Philanthropy was just one facet of Nielson’s storied life. From a cow-milking kid on his family’s ranch to executive at an energy juggernaut, he experienced tectonic changes in the world — along with personal successes and his share of losses. Through it all, people say, he exhibited remarkable decency.
“To me, to so many people, I think he was really just an example of how one can live their life really well,” McCormack said.
He had deep integrity, genuine humility and was never too busy to chat with a neighbor, friends say. He traveled the globe, attended his grandchildren’s sport games and went into the office up until the last day of his life — a fitting finale for a man known for his work ethic.
“His absence leaves a deep hole in the community,” said former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, a friend since childhood. “One of the big trees falls from the skyline.”
James Edward Nielson was born in 1931 in Alberta, Canada. His father, Glenn Nielson, moved the family to Cody when he was 7.
Simpson remembers Nielson’s arrival in the town’s tiny elementary school as a touch exotic: “He was known as a Canadian.”
Hard work was a staple in Glenn Nielson’s Mormon household and Jim learned it young, milking the cow, mowing fields and selling newspapers around town. Park County is where Glenn Nielson found partners to help him buy a tiny refinery company, according to his obituary in the New York Times. The elder Nielson went on to build a petroleum empire, transforming the initial company into the publicly traded behemoth Husky Oil Company.
For decades spanning the 1940s-1970s, Husky was a major economic engine in Cody.
“It was the biggest horse in the barn,” Simpson said. “Husky meant everything. Everybody you knew was either a chemist or an engineer or a line man or a tanker [at the company].” During its heyday, he remembers, “half the town” would attend its annual holiday party.
Growing up, the younger Nielson was easy going and well-liked — often chosen as the class president, Simpson said.
Simpson and Nielson went through high school together and spent a seminal pre-college year as boarders at Cranbrook School, where Simpson has fond memories of the young men experiencing the joys of independence — like tasting beer and attending sports games.
Their lives continued to parallel; both attended the University of Wyoming before serving in the military. Nielson came away with a business degree and a Navy stint.
“And then we both said, independently we said, ‘we’ll just go back to Cody and make it a better place,’” Simpson recalls.
A father changes
Nielson met his first wife, Joanne, in 1958; they married and had five children, raising them on a ranch near Cody as Nielson learned the ropes of the refinery business at Husky Oil.
Jay Nielson was the couple’s youngest child. In his early memories, he said, it’s impossible to separate his father from work.
“He was working all the time,” he said. “He was always going on business trips and, you know, he would come back and we would work around the house.”
Jay Nielson believes his dad’s overemphasis on work likely contributed to his parents’ eventual divorce. But, he said, the split had surprising outcomes. His parents remained good friends, and he watched his father change as a result.
Nielson seemed to have an epiphany “that maybe he didn’t know some of his kids as well as he wanted. And so it was kind of more of a wake-up call,” he said. “There’s a person who probably looked at himself and grew as a person.”
After the split, the elder Nielson made every effort to spend time with his kids, Jay Nielson said.
Husky also continued to demand his attention. The company at one point had production in seven U.S. states and Canada, with refineries producing gas and asphalt.
Nielson was named president and CEO of the company in 1973, at age 41. But in 1977, Husky was the target of a hostile takeover. Alberta Gas and Truckline ultimately gained control and acquired it in 1979, which coincided with the family’s exit. Glenn Nielson sold his family’s 20% stake for more than $100 million, according to the Times.
Chainsaws and opera
Nielson met Anne Young in 1985. On their first date, Young remembers, Nielson was about an hour late to pick her up. She was close to writing him off, but when he arrived he was covered in dirt. It turned out he had helped a stranded motorist change a tire.
“I thought, well maybe this guy won’t be too bad after all,” she said.
A picnic on his ranch that day led to a 30-year marriage. Life had its ups and downs, Young said, but Nielson was unflappable, never balking when things went sideways.
That included everything from the Husky tumult to broken ranch equipment, plummeting oil prices and other business ventures that didn’t pan out. Nielson’s ability to take plunges and roll with the punches awed her. “He never complained … He would just truck on, no matter what would happen in his life,” she said. “It was almost like he couldn’t wait for the next challenge to happen.”
Nielson had left Husky and started an oil and gas company in Montana before returning to Cody, where he founded the firm Nielson & Associates. He spent the rest of his career there.
He and Young traveled widely — to Kenya and Nepal, France and Mongolia, and took many pack trips in the Absarokas, which remain her favorite memories.
Though he had one foot in the corporate world, he was great with animals and could fix things. Young recalled something a writer friend once said to her: There’s nothing like a man who can wield a chainsaw but still enjoy the opera.
“That was Jim,” she said.
After notching Eagle Scout status as a kid, Nielson continued a civic-minded track, serving in many board positions and collecting accolades for his work. He was a generous patron of arts, backer of business ventures and supporter of all stripes of community causes. He attended Cody events big or small, McCormack said.
Nielson played a major role in reviving the Sleeping Giant ski area, for example, which closed in 2004 after its infrastructure had fallen into disrepair. (Nielson and a friend had fashioned a rope tow to haul them during Sleeping Giant’s early days, Simpson said.) Current owner Nick Piazza doesn’t believe the operation would be possible without Nielson, he said.
He also gave to the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources and helped build up a private aviation enterprise in Cody. His most consistent cause was the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, where he was the center’s second-longest serving trustee, a 49-year stint that stretched back to 1973. (Despite one failed attempt to resign, which fellow trustee Simpson thwarted.)
The center keeps files on its trustees and advisors, and when Executive Director Rebecca West pulled out Nielson’s, she said, “I was laughing because it’s literally 6 inches thick.”
Nielson left his mark on many facets of the institution, and was particularly involved in major exhibits acquisition. One example is the Paul Dyke collection, which Nielson and Young were instrumental in helping the center obtain.
He was a massive supporter of Western and Indigenous art who applied his business acumen to the role, West said. He helped ensure the center built up endowment funds and focused on engaging youth. West credits Nielson for helping the center raise its profile — part of a larger interest in improving Cody.
“He was just an excellent businessman who adjusted with the times,” she said.
Nielson “could have lived anywhere,” McCormack said. “He could have had a whole different lifestyle. He could have jetted around.”
But “he stayed right here in Cody, Wyoming,” McCormack said. “He really was a hometown guy.”
Jay Nielson ended up moving back to Cody, where his father passed him the baton at Nielson & Associates. The firm now focuses on private investment.
Even through health setbacks, Nielson continued coming into the office right until the end, briefcase in hand, to drink coffee, catch up on the Wall Street Journal and find peace.
“The office was a sanctuary for him,” Jay Nielson said.
Later in life, Jay Nielson got to know his father as a business colleague, a grandfather and a person. The dad he watched transform all those years back continued to improve himself, he said.
“To grow to the point where he was later on in his life was astounding,” Jay Nielson said. “He was 91 and he had an absolutely fantastic life.”