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TJ Nelson did many things well, perhaps none better than breakfast.

Born with the first name of Thomas but almost never called that, the highly sociable Nelson was a regular at Mac’s Deli & Café in downtown Santa Rosa and a frequent visitor to the city’s other favored morning meet-and-eateries.

“He loved keeping up with everybody,” said Kathy Story of Santa Rosa, one of the Sonoma County native’s five children.

Her father treasured also the challenge of finding just the right ranch or other piece of land for someone looking to settle in Sonoma or Mendocino counties. He worked as an independent real estate broker until just three weeks before his death Dec. 1 at his Santa Rosa home.

Nelson, a go-getter who took up bicycling in his mid 60s and at 76 pedaled with a son on a benefit ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, was 86.

He was born Jan. 3, 1931, in Petaluma. Following graduation from Petaluma High School he studied for a time at Santa Rosa Junior College but decided he needed work more than degrees.

He hired on as a chicken-feed salesman at the former R-Way Feed Co. in Santa Rosa, traveling from chicken ranch to chicken ranch, making not just customers of the ranchers but friends.

In 1951, Nelson made the biggest pitch of his life: he asked Dorothy “Scooter” Hardin to marry him. He’d been sweet on her since junior high school in Petaluma. But she resisted, and after high school went away to college.

Whenever Hardin would return to Sonoma County, daughter Story said, “He would still be there waiting for her.

“And he finally won.”

They’d be married for 66 years.

It was in 1965 that Nelson switched from making sales calls at ranches to selling them. He opened TJ Nelson & Associates, Ranch and Land Brokers, in Santa Rosa. In short order, he created one satellite office in the back of the Redwood Drive-In in Boonville and a second in Willits. Later he consolidated to a single office in Windsor.

Glenda Sales went to work for him 20 years ago, discovering that he could be curmudgeonly but also great fun, and that he’d do anything for anyone who dealt with him honestly.

“He was the saint of second chances. He was like a dad to me,” said Sales, who became Nelson’s partner in TJ Nelson & Associates and now owns the business.

When Nelson wasn’t working, he relished bicycling, passing time with family and friends, and tending his backyard garden.

A third-generation Sonoma County resident, he promoted local business and was proud that his three children who live locally work for Exchange Bank, Memorial Hospice and Friedman’s Home Improvement.

Nelson’s death at home followed a brief siege of gallbladder cancer.

In addition to his wife and daughter in Santa Rosa, he is survived by sons Rolf and Chris Nelson, also of Santa Rosa, Eric Nelson of Fortuna and Kurt Nelson of El Dorado Hills; a sister, Joan Nelson Elam of Rocklin; a brother, John Nelson of Petaluma; and seven grandchildren.

There will be a celebration of TJ Nelson’s life at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Friedman Event Center.

His family suggests memorial contributions to Memorial Hospice, 439 College Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95401.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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