Joyland a theme in Nelson's life

07/01/2012 6:44 PM

07/01/2012 6:44 PM

From across the nation, the e-mails and phone calls came Wednesday from people who knew Stan Nelson. By 2 p.m., Margaret Nelson said she had responded to many of the messages of sympathy for her husband, the man she described as the "tallest, funniest fellow I'd ever seen."

Stanley Roger Nelson, longtime owner and operator of Joyland Amusement Park, died Tuesday. He was 87.

The couple, who met at the park, would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in December.

The Nelsons operated the park on South Hillside for more than 30 years. Generations of Wichitans rode the roller coaster and strolled the midway there.

A few years ago, two groups made unsuccessful attempts to operate and buy Joyland. It has been closed since 2006 and remains for sale.

"Stan and Margaret Nelson built and developed relationships in the amusement park groups that last up to today," said Gary Slade, publisher and editor-in-chief of Amusement Today, a national trade industry magazine.

"Joyland had a long, rich history in the amusement industry. It was, in its heyday, exactly everything that a family-owned traditional park is there to do for a community."

The park's best days were before television and air conditioning. It offered fried chicken dinners, a swimming pool and steam-powered engine shows. One of the trademark attractions at the park was a Wurlitzer organ with Louie the clown.

Mr. Nelson was born June 24, 1923, in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

During World War II, Mr. Nelson served as a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew missions over the "Hump," the Himalayan Mountains in the China-Burma-India Theater.

"It was a dangerous thing, and there are still lots of people that were lost in the Himalayas and never found," Margaret Nelson said.

A couple of years after the war, Mr. Nelson came to Wichita to visit an Army buddy, Louie Smith, who introduced him to brothers Harold and Herb Ottaway and their father, Lester Ottaway.

In the late 1940s, the Ottaways bought the 40-acre tract at 2801 S. Hillside and started a family entertainment business: Joyland Amusement Park.

Their park offered a miniature train and a wooden roller coaster, considered one of the last surviving coasters designed by Herbert Paul Schmeck.

Mr. Nelson was intrigued by the family-owned business and began working for the Ottaways.

It was April 1950 when 17-year-old Margaret Heinzman began working the Skee-Ball booth, and she saw the lanky 6-foot-3 Army veteran walk by.

He wore suits and ties, and she adored the sound of his East Coast accent. One night when she had to work late, he offered to take her home. They were married in December that year.

"Even when we were dating, he wore that shirt and tie. He didn't own a pair of blue jeans when he came to Kansas," Margaret Nelson said. "I remember after we had been dating for a while telling him we needed to go casual. He put a sweater on over that shirt and tie."

In the early 1970s, the couple purchased the amusement park from the Ottaways.

In 1972, Mr. Nelson served as president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. He also served on the group's board for many years.

In addition to his wife, survivors include his sons S. Roger Nelson and Stephen Nelson, daughters Valorie Hagerman of Topeka and Barbara Ann Bachman of Centralia, 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Family visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. today at Broadway Mortuary, 1147 S. Broadway. The funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday at First Evangelical Free Church, 1825 N. Woodlawn; a graveside committal is at 2:30 p.m. Friday at Resthaven Cemetery.

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