Hometown Hero: Paul Nielsen stops to smell the flowers


This is one of a continuing series the Mahomet Daily will publish about the ordinary men and women from the community who have done or accomplished extraordinary things in their lifetime. We encourage readers to submit nominations for other deserving individuals who deserve consideration. We are delighted to tell the stories of these persons who have contributed so much, often without the recognition they were due.

Paul Nielsen is That Guy.

His name may not be the most recognizable, but his actions make him a prominent community figure.

Nielsen is an early-morning runner — usually taking the same route  — and it’s not unusual to see him stop and pick up trash.

He is That Guy.

Or, the 78-year-old might be spotted on his knees on the ground with a digital camera in his hand, snapping a picture of what he calls “a natural phenomenon.”

Sometimes passersby stop to see if he needs assistance.

“I tend not to take pictures when people are coming,” he said.

His actions haven’t gone unnoticed.

“For years and years, I have driven by Paul during his morning runs in the country,”

Mahomet-Seymour boys’ cross-country coach Neal Garrison said. “What you can see is Paul fully enjoying the moment. While so many cars I pass seem to be rushing to somewhere they don’t want to be, in contrast you will see Paul literally stopping to smell the flowers.

“I have seen on more than one occasion Paul stepping into the ditch of weeds to get close to a beautiful flower that is glistening from the morning dew. He would step into what I would imagine to be cold and wet and itchy weeds to put his attention on that one flower. He would slowly pull out a small camera and take a picture of that flower.

“He just seemed to want to save that beautiful moment forever. While so many of us miss that moment, Paul doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to be in a stressful rush.

“He seems to be patiently waiting and looking for the beauty of the morning moment that 99 percent of us pass by. I think so many of us look to the competitive side of athletics to get that fulfillment, when I think the joyful and peaceful moment isn’t in the competition side of sports, but in setting aside time in our stressful lives to slow things down and enjoy things.”

He is That Guy.

Nielsen was a distance runner in high school and college — both in Nebraska — but has called Mahomet home since 1969.

“When we moved here, the high school track was in my backyard,” Nielsen said. “I ran on the track a while, but it got boring.

“That was about the same time that road racing became very popular, so I did that.”

He hasn’t stopped logging the miles, at least not for any extensive amount of time.

He took a couple weeks off after he had his pacemaker replaced in February.

“But I didn’t care to quit,” he said.

He is That Guy.

Nielsen isn’t one to boast about his accomplishments, but Garrison is well aware of his many achievements.

“Paul was a tremendous runner in the competitive sense,” Garrison said. “He was well known for being one of the greatest marathon runners in this state.

His results in the Monticello Freedom Marathon in the early 1970s shows he was one of the greatest.”

Though he doesn’t run as fast, it hasn’t diminished Nielsen’s drive.

“It is very hard for an athlete to go from being on top to not in a competitive sense,” Garrison said. “I think this is the ruin of so many great athletes that have great success in elementary school and junior high.

“Many of these athletes win a game or a race and once they get beat, they struggle emotionally and mentally with enjoying the sport anymore.

“Paul was a championship runner in the competitive sense, but continued with his sport way past his days of getting recognition in the paper or winning medals for being on top of his sport. He shows us we can enjoy athletics for just the feeling we get from doing them, even if we aren’t winning. He shows us there are decades of enjoyment well beyond the competitive years.”

He is That Guy.

Nielsen lets the weather dictate how frequently he runs.

“Pretty much every day,” he said, “unless there’s a thunderstorm, or if it’s cold or windy enough, I won’t go.”

On Sundays, for a change of pace, he will run on the bike trail.

During the week, he heads over to Turkey Farm Road, goes north into the country and back into town on a path that brings him by the high school.

“I go about 6 miles typically,” he said.

He is That Guy.

He keeps his eye open for more than potholes. He will routinely gather up some trash.

“Mostly beer and pop cans,” Nielsen said.

There’s a reason for focusing on those recyclable items.

“I use that to offset shoe expenses,” Nielsen said.

He doesn’t always leave home with a bag to fill, but that’s not a problem.

“A lot of times, somebody will help me out and there will be a plastic bag along the roadside,” Nielsen said.

At 50 cents a pound for recyclables, he needs to fill plenty of bags.

He has two pairs of running shoes that he wears on alternating days.

“I have to replace them more than once a year,” he said.

He is That Guy.

Nielsen isn’t self-promoting and hasn’t sought attention for his consistent daily rituals.

Garrison believes he is the ultimate illustration of actions speaking louder than words.

“For years and years, you will see Paul carrying handfuls of trash,” Garrison said. “He doesn’t seem to be annoyed by this task. He doesn’t seem to be looking for praise or a sign on the road acknowledging him cleaning the ditch.

“Paul, in contrast to most of us, is making an impact without seeking accolades. I think he knows he can’t stop the general public from littering or from the wind blowing things into the ditch. Yet, each day he takes one step towards improving things.

“If you add up what each of his tiny steps towards improving things does, you can imagine what mass amounts of trash he has picked up over the months and years. He is a great example of what consistent small efforts can do over time. I think so many of us see things as too big to accomplish or too overwhelming to make a difference for just one person.

“Yet Paul shows us on his runs each morning that if we break down overwhelmingly large tasks into one day at a time, even one person can have a huge impact.”

He is That Guy.

Nielsen is affable and friendly, traits he credits to his rural upbringing in Nebraska.

“On the farm, you’d wave to people,” he said, “because most you probably knew.

“People here tend to wave quite a bit.”

He doesn’t always recognize folks through their tinted windshields, but he remains in full view as he runs on the side of the road that traffic comes towards him.

When he attended a recent Farm Progress Show, in Decatur, “people recognized me,” he said.

He is That Guy.

Running has produced many memories for Nielsen, who was a high school state runner-up in the 1-mile race.

One fond moment was about a decade ago, running in the Mahomet Half-Marathon with his granddaughter Abigail Nielsen (who is now student teaching near Joliet).

“We started together and I lost her,” Nielsen said. “A mile or two from the finish, she came back (caught up) and we ran together.”

They didn’t quite finish side by side.

“She had more oomph at the end,” Nielsen said.

His morning runs are generally a solo venture. However, he is not alone.

Commuters, as well as other runners, take notice.

“I see Mr. Nielsen most mornings when I’m finishing up my run,” said Abby Prince, from Mansfield. “He always smiles and waves. Always.

“He’s so committed to his morning run. What an important reminder to keep doing the things that are good for us.”

Folks don’t need to ask who he is.

He is That Guy.

Besides helping to clean up the environment on an almost daily basis, Nielsen has other things on his mind as he runs.

“It used to be I’d think about work things, coming up with a solution to a problem related to work,” he said.

In his retirement years, the former electrical engineer’s thoughts go elsewhere.

“I think about things going on in my life, work to be done around the house,” Nielsen said.

He is That Guy.

He can tell he has slowed down his pace. His morning runs used to get him back home before the early-morning school traffic got heavy.

Now, he’s in the middle of it.

“I see quite a bit of traffic now,” he said.

That’s OK, he added, because it is a pursuit he enjoys.

“I can visualize it may end sometime, but I don’t want it to,” Nielsen said. “I think it’s kind of like people on drugs.

“It’s addictive. It doesn’t feel right when I haven’t been out.”

Garrison gets it.

“I have always admired Paul as I think he has really reached a level of running enjoyment that so many of us miss,” Garrison said. “I think so many of us are drawn to athletics for the competition.

“While competition in sports can be a great thing, in many ways it ruins the full beauty that sports can offer.

“When an athlete or team doesn’t meet their competitive goals, it can really drain the fun out of the sport. It can be emotionally miserable to not reach that competitive goal. But the real enjoyment of a sport — in Paul’s case, running — isn’t in the win or the personal best. So many athletes and parents leave sporting events frustrated, sad, and angry in elementary school through high school.

“This often comes down to not beating another team or even your own classmate. Seeing Paul run is a daily reminder to me that there is so much more we can get out of athletics than the win.”

Garrison views Nielsen as a role model and as an exemplary motivator.

“Paul is a great example that we can enjoy athletics and exercise beyond our schooling days,” Garrison said. “He shows us we can enjoy athletics even when we aren’t winning something for it.

“He inspires us to care about others through his acts of picking up trash in a selfless, servant heart doing an unwanted task. Paul lets us know in his own way to enjoy the moment and to not be in a big rush.”

Yes, he is really That Guy.

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I may do it all, but I have not done it all.

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