FEBRUARY 22, 2018 – SWAMPSCOTT – Nelson Kessler lived in Swampscott for over 50 years, and spent that time working tirelessly to make the town a cleaner, greener place. He served on five different town boards, three of which he chaired. For this man’s decades of distinguished service, the town of Swampscott gave him three different awards, including the Distinguished Citizen Award.
“He was a strong believer in tikkun olam,” remembered his daughter, Beth Hoffman of Swampscott. “He stuck up for the little guy. He spent his life trying to make life better for everyone around him.”
Kessler died last month after a brief illness. He was 85.
Born on February 8, 1932 to David and Fay Kessler, Kessler spent his Everett childhood surrounded by a big family. Because his father’s nine siblings all settled in Everett, Kessler had 41 first cousins living in close proximity. For many years to follow, members of what came to be known as the “Kessler Cousin Club” met with each other once a month.
A gifted athlete, Kessler was known throughout his high school years as the “Golden Toe of Everett” because he was a kicker for the football team. After high school, he briefly served in the Army during the Korean War, and then went to college to study accounting. After spending an extended period of time courting the woman with whom he fell instantly in love, he married Libby Doliner in 1953. In the nearly 65 years of marriage that followed, the two scarcely left one another’s side.
He eventually went into the family business as a sheet metal worker and an air conditioning duct worker for SMW Local Union #17, which helped build some of Boston’s most iconic buildings, including the Prudential Center. When the family drove into Boston, he liked to point out the towering skyscrapers he had helped build with his own hands.
The Kesslers moved to Swampscott in 1966 and bought a condemned house. “I asked my father if we were going to live in this scary castle,” recalls Hoffman. “He told me, ‘don’t worry, we’ll make it pretty.’” Kessler put all his skills to use in a top-to-bottom renovation of the house he and his wife would live in for over 30 years.
When he was 55, he contracted rheumatoid arthritis, and was unable to continue his former work. To fill his time, Kessler dove headfirst into volunteer work with Swampscott town government. Even though he was only a volunteer, he treated his work like a full-time job, and showed up at Swampscott Town Hall every day. He attended every single Town Meeting, and knew more about the town than most residents. “He liked to say he had ‘the pulse of the town,’” said his daughter Lesley Dexter. Often, just as the Town Meeting was drawing to a close, Kessler would raise his hand with another point.
“He didn’t let anything slip through the cracks,” said Hoffman. “He wanted to get things done right.”
In his decades of service to Swampscott, Kessler served on a number of committees dedicated to improving public health. As co-chairman of the Board of Health, he helped implement town-wide curbside recycling, fought to remove harmful pesticide use in schools, and helped preserve parks and air quality, among many other accomplishments. He also put his building expertise to use on the construction of the beloved playground Kid’s Cove, which he was able to finish in a mere weekend, according to Hoffman.
He was just as active in the Jewish community as he was in the town of Swampscott. He served on the board and brotherhood of Temple Israel for over 20 years, often getting up at 5:30 in the mornings on Sunday to prepare a gourmet spread of eggs, lox, hash browns, and sablefish. He kept a kosher home, and enjoyed sitting at the head of the table at large family gatherings at every holiday. “He had a Jewish heart,” said Hoffman. “It was important to him to pass down the traditions to future generations.”
Services for Nelson Kessler were held last month in Salem. He is survived by his wife Libby Kessler, his children Stephen Kessler and wife Barbara of Dennis, Cynthia Picariello and husband John, Lesley Dexter and her husband Ric, Beth Hoffman, all of Swampscott; his brother Bob Kessler and wife Madeleine of Tucson; his grandchildren Jennifer Picariello and husband Andrew Dixon, Heather Flatto and husband Scott, David Hoffman and fiancée Ashley Pivnick, and Adam and Ethan Dexter.