With holidays on the horizon, one Rend Lake College dean is celebrating an extra achievement: retirement. Chris Nielsen, Dean of Applied Science and Technology, is retiring after 25 years with the college next week; only months shy of 40 years roaming RLC’s hallways as a student.
The Herrin native, a former coal miner, first came to RLC’s campus in July of 1978 as an employee of Old Ben Coal Company looking for coal miner training. Every year afterward to August of 1990, he revisited campus for additional training.
Then, in 1991, Nielsen came into the hallways of the Applied Technology Center (ATC) like many others at the time who were laid off by local coal companies. He already had a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Technology from Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale, but decided to use the opportunity to go back and work on his graduate degree. This, in turn, led to an internship in mine electrical retraining for RLC’s Chuck Foster, then Coordinator of Electricity for the Mining Department.
“Every year I worked at Old Ben, I came back to RLC to have retraining – for 12 years – I was back every year. After I was laid off, I substitute taught for about four months, but then I was back here as an intern,” said Nielsen. “I’ve been around this corner in this building a long time.”
The corner, a small breakroom in the ATC, was a spot Nielsen often shared with colleagues over a cup of coffee or during meetings at the round table. Since he was initially hired in January of 1991 as a part-time instructor teaching mine electrical training, the corner has been a pivotal part of his RLC tenure.
It wasn’t long before Nielsen found plenty of classes to teach outside of mine electrical training – a move that would prolong his stay with the college.
“My purpose here was to get my electrical instruction certification, and RLC had work for me to do and I worked. There was enough mine electrical instruction to occupy more than a full-time load. I also supplemented that by teaching mine retraining for Mine Safety and Health (Administration, MSHA) and I taught some regular academic classes also,” said Nielsen.
About a year and a half later, in August of 1992, Foster retired, leaving an open seat for Nielsen to become a full-time faculty member. That same month, he graduated from SIU Carbondale with a Master’s Degree in Workforce Education.
“I worked so much that, between January of 1991 and August of 1992, I was able to buy a year of full-time instruction,” explained Nielsen. “I would teach all day, an 8-hour class, and at night, I would either teach a night class here two nights or go to SIU and take two night classes there.”
As more of his colleagues retired in the 1990s, Nielsen said his course load changed, constantly adding and removing courses from mining to basic electrical, including motor controls, robotics, and PLCs.
“There were lots of retirees of faculty who started working in the 1970s. I didn’t absorb all their classes, but most of the industrial electronics and maintenance classes. As the college went through those changes, I picked up different subjects,” said Nielsen.
At the mention of the Industrial Electronics and Maintenance program, Nielsen’s eyes lit up. It was clear he felt the development and evolution of the program was one of his biggest accomplishments, in addition to the number of apprenticeship programs created with his assistance for local students.
“Years ago, we had industrial electronics and industrial service, two different programs. In about 2000, William Dill (retired Industrial Technology and Advanced Technology Division Chair) and I got together and combined them into what is now the Industrial Electronics and Maintenance program,” said Nielsen. “What’s happened in the 17 years since then, we’ve developed our relationship with Continental Tire and it’s really gratifying to see the students in that program. They come here, they get taught, and they go on to get a real good job.”
The RLC-Continental Tire the Americas, LLC Internship program isn’t the only apprenticeship Nielsen has been directly involved with. In the past, Nielsen represented RLC in partnerships with Technicolor-Universal Media Services of Pinckneyville and Independent Electrical Contractors.
“Those students, through those apprenticeships, still have good jobs as electricians and maintenance people. The partnerships have all been pretty good,” said Nielsen. “Apprenticeships are there to satisfy employment needs and hire good people. It’s one of the biggest opportunities the college has to get involved with them. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.”
Nielsen was also a contributor to two of the largest grants RLC has ever received. The first was a $1.07 million grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to design, engineer, and construct the 20,000 square-foot Coal Mine Training Center, which opened in the Fall of 2009.
Soon after, RLC learned of the second grant, an award of $1.6 million from the U. S. Department of Labor as a part of then-President George Bush’s Community-Based Job Training initiative. This grant was to train the region’s future coal mining workforce – right up Nielsen’s alley.
With the funding from these two grants, RLC built a new facility, and revamped and purchased equipment for several programs on campus, including welding, hydraulics, motor controls, mining, and more. Nielsen was part of the crew that bid and chose state-of-the-art equipment.
“We were thinking coal mining would be back like it was in the 1970s, but it came back differently. If there’s a disappointment for me, it’s that a lot of us thought coal mining would become a large piece of our training and education, and it just changed. It wasn’t what it was when I was hired,” said Nielsen.
He continued, “Now we have a great facility and equipment, and we still do retraining and firefighter training. We’ve won three Brookwood-Sago grants, totaling over $275,000, to promote mine rescue and mine firefighting.”
In his last few years of teaching, Nielsen worked under the guidance of then-Division Chair Terry Wilkerson. He took over the role when Wilkerson became RLC’s seventh president in 2012. Soon after, the college’s division chairs had their titles changed to dean, to reflect more accurately their duties.
As dean of the Applied Science and Technology Division, Nielsen is in charge of 16 different programs on campus, ranging from architecture and graphic design to agriculture and heavy equipment to criminal justice, and everything in between.
“My role now is different than it was as a teacher, but still, I like to talk to students. Working with them, I like that. Anytime I get a chance to talk to students about getting them a job, what job they want, or what they’re doing, I take it. That’s what I’ve always done,” said Nielsen. “Usually now, I only see students if there’s a problem, but that’s okay too.”
In the days leading up to his last day on campus, a calendar on the wall in Nielsen’s office held a countdown. He laughed when asked what he plans to do in upcoming weeks.
“I’ve got a lot of stuff I want to do, the question is, will I run out of things? It’ll be interesting to see how the time will fill up,” Nielsen said. “I know I’m going to travel. My daughter (Liz Nielsen, a 2007 RLC engineering graduate) has bought a place in Chicago, and I’ve already got my first project up there.”
Nielsen is also a licensed scuba diver – and a Master Diver at that, with hours of class time and over 50 dives logged, many at Vienna’s Mermet Springs training center. He has plans to visit the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico in the next year to follow his passion alongside his girlfriend Patti.
“I’ve got a trip planned for Cayman Brac, in the Caribbean, and in July, I’m going to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. I just got back from Cozumel and I went to the Philippines in January. Right now, I’ve got 95 dives and hoping to hit the 100-mark soon,” said Nielsen. “I was a scuba diver back in college, but it was expensive and there wasn’t any place to dive around here. I got a job and had to work, so that kind of fell off. When I did it before, I found it fun and I get to travel.”
Nielsen said he’s also looking forward to traveling to see a group of high school friends. He said his “old football friends” will be nice to see again.
“I’ve got a nucleus of friends, probably about 10 of us, who have stayed close since we were in high school. I plan to go see those guys and they’re scattered all across the country,” said Nielsen.
Nielsen joined many of those friends and coaches in the creation of the Herrin Tiger Football Alumni Association, a 501C3 tax-exempt organization that raises money to give away as scholarships to Herrin High School students and to local charities. The organization also gives to Nielsen’s RLC Foundation scholarship, the Rachel R. Nielsen Engineering Scholarship, in honor of his late wife Raylene.
“After I lost my wife in 2014, we started the scholarship. Since my daughter is an engineer and the family has been in construction, it seemed like a good thing to do,” said Nielsen. “The Herrin Tigers Football Alumni Association makes contributions to that scholarship, but we also raise, on average, between $15,000 and $20,000 every year that we give away. We give $1,000 scholarships to students, and we also support local food banks and charities. It’s all because we played football together, and it gives us a chance to get together and hang out.”
Nielsen said the fundraising is split fifty-fifty between scholarships and donations to local organizations. Some of the recent donations include to places like Night’s Shield in West Frankfort, and other locations in Herrin, Marion, and Carbondale.
In his two and a half decades at RLC, Nielsen received the 2010 Faculty Excellence Award for his outstanding work in the classroom. He also served as president of the faculty union for a decade.
He also helped lead RLC through two reaccreditation processes with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), having a seat on the Steering Committee in 1998 and as one of three coordinators during the 2008 visit when the college received the maximum 10-year reaccreditation.