By George Slaughter
Katy city leaders Monday remembered former Katy Mayor and City Administrator Johnny Nelson as a great icon who did a lot of good for the city.
Nelson died Sunday. He was 79.
During his tenures as mayor (1983-87) and city administrator (1994-2014), Nelson played a key leadership role in Katy’s transformation from rural town with dirt roads to blossoming urban area with subdivisions and shopping centers.
City Administrator Byron Hebert, who succeeded Nelson when Nelson retired in 2014, remembered Nelson as a mentor on city governance and financial issues. He said Nelson’s work with the Katy Mills Mall, and how the city worked to make that project happen in 1998-99, helped to set the stage last year for the city’s securing an Amazon distribution center scheduled to open later this year.
“He was a great man,” Hebert said.
In a 2015 Houston Chronicle article, Nelson said his role in helping to open the mall as his greatest achievement, a view echoed by former mayor Fabol Hughes, who served from 2013-17.
“It (the mall) put us on sound financial footing,” Hughes said. “It was a big, big deal to get it through. That was a huge turning point for the City of Katy.”
The mall’s developer had chosen a site that was at least partially on land under the City of Houston’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. Hughes said the developer wanted the entire mail to be within the Katy city limits. Nelson said in the Chronicle article that the city wrote a $1 million check to make that happen.
Hughes said that Nelson, like other Katy mayors, have believed in a financially conservative policy where the city’s reserve funds would be grown and protected. Such reserves helped with the mall, and they paid for the new city hall building that opened in 2016.
“Even in the hard times, he would make sure to put some money aside,” Hughes said. “Katy has lost a great icon. He was good for the City of Katy.”
Nelson shared his experiences and perspectives with others as they became involved in Katy civic affairs. Mayor Chuck Brawner said when he was first elected to the city council in 2013, Nelson was an “optimal grandfather” to the city.
“If I needed to know something about the City of Katy, where it was done, why it was done, what we should do, Johnny was always there,” Brawner said.
Brawner said Nelson’s encouragement helped Brawner down the road that led to his becoming mayor last year.
“Johnny and I would meet with the group at Snappy’s, and he’d tell me the things I needed to do,” Brawner said. “He’d tell me, ‘So-and-so needs three signs.’
He was helping me with signs and all along he was encouraging me to be a good candidate, to speak to the people, and to take care of the issues.”
Council Member-at-Large Steve Pierson recalled how he worked with Nelson on a crime prevention television program many years when Pierson was a sheriff’s deputy. When Pierson was elected to the city council, he said he would visit with Nelson and pick his brain about what was on the agenda and better understand the issues.
“People greatly respected Johnny,” Pierson said. “They loved Johnny. There’s only one Johnny Nelson.”
Brawner said that he and his wife, Marcy, last met with Nelson and his wife, Paulette, about three or four weeks ago for Italian food. He said they planned to have lunch once a month.
“His health started going down so fast, it was a shock,” Brawner said. “I will always remember Johnny and what he did for me as a person and as a city councilman.”
The Katy city flag at city hall was lowered to half staff Monday, and a portrait of Nelson was put on display at the receptionist’s desk. On Tuesday, black bows were added to the outdoor columns in remembrance of Nelson.
Nelson is survived by his wife, Paulette; children, Sherry, Gary and wife, Alex, and Mike; grandchildren: Tonya, Jonathan, Austin and wife Ashley, Garrett, Stephanie, and Cade; great grandchildren: Keelan, Caleb and Addison; and his sister, Deloras “Lo” Poorman.
The Nelson family will hold a visitation from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, at the Schmidt Funeral Home Grand Parkway Chapel, 1344 W. Grand Parkway South. The funeral service will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Katy First Baptist Church, 600 Pin Oak Road.