Nels Hanson, former head of SPSCC and Centralia College, dies at age 95

Nels Hanson, the founding president of the higher education district that came to include South Puget Sound Community College, died on Saturday of natural causes at his home in Lacey’s Panorama City.

He was 95.

Hanson was the first president of Centralia College, and helped create legislation that established the state’s Community College Act of 1967.

The law permitted transfer of the Olympia Vocational Institute from the Olympia School District into the state’s Community College District 12, which served Lewis and Thurston counties.

The vocational school was renamed Olympia Technical Community College, and it later became South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC).

“I was recently asked, ‘What achievement — during your 15 years as college president — are you most proud?” Hanson said in a story published in SPSCC’s magazine last year. “Without hesitation, my answer was getting a community college started in the Olympia area.”

Hanson was born Dec. 30, 1918, in Carrington, ND.

“When he was 11, his parents drove my dad and his sisters out (to Washington) in a Model T,” said his daughter, Carol Gonnella of Jackson, WY.

“His whole family moved to Washington during the Depression, and what you grew and what you worked on was what you ate and wore,” added son Bill Hanson of Tacoma.

Hanson studied education at Washington State University, and taught at a school in Randle.

He headed the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s science and math department before attending Stanford for a doctorate in education administration and finance, according to Centralia College..

When he came back to Washington, Hanson went into school administration. He headed Centralia College and later Community College District 12, which included Centralia, SPSCC and the Garret Heyns Education Center inside the prison at Shelton.

“He was one of the real pioneers that established the community technical college system for the state of Washington,” said retired SPSCC president Ken Minnaert. “He was a tireless worker. ...He was a master at working the legislative scene.”

Minnaert said Hanson was instrumental in the purchase of property for SPSCC’s main campus on Mottman Road in Olympia. Before that, the school operated in downtown Olympia at a former Montgomery Ward building.

“He created the campus out there,” Minnaert said.

Hanson was a tree farmer too. Over the years, Hanson Family Limited acquired 800 acres of forestland, according to a story on the Washington Farm Forestry Association’s (WFFA) website.

After retiring from education, Hanson became the WFFA’s secretary and legislative director in 1983. He was the organization’s executive director from 1985 to 2003.

“He and I planted and thinned trees until he was well over 70,” Bill Hanson said. “He worked hard.”

Hanson also served on the Salvation Army’s board of directors for 31 years, Gonnella said.

“He was just a very gracious, humble man, who was so interested in the lives of others,” she said.

He was proceeded in death by his wife of 62 years, Phyllis Hanson, and his sister Joyce Jones. In addition to his children, Hanson is survived by sisters Wilma Brown and Joy Beaver, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.