Chuck Nehls is known by Highland Park residents as the man with a bright yellow safety vest who helps kids cross busy intersections during school. He can also be found shoveling, raking, weeding and cleaning up the neighborhood on most days, no matter the season.
Nehls also used to be seen around St. Paul with an orange cat on his shoulders. But the cat, Ashley, died in April after 17 years of being Nehls' "best friend."
This fall Highland Park residents heard of Ashley's death and started a GoFundMe page for Nehls, called "Chuck needs a new kitty!"
Within weeks, the GoFundMe account garnered support from 110 people who raised $2,750 as of Nov. 20.
Now, Nehls, who has developmental disabilities, has a new orange kitten named Heidi, bags of donated food and litter, and any future veterinary procedures covered.
"People had known me with (Ashley) for years," he told the Pioneer Press, adding that the cat would come to church with him at Lumen Christi in Highland Park and sit quietly in the pews.
"Ashley was very, very special. This was an example of the most perfect bond between a man and his kitty," he said.
In April, Ashley stopped eating, Nehls said, and 18 days later the cat died at Highland Animal Hospital.
"He was so sad when his cat died," said Kathy Carruth, executive director of the Highland District Council. "He came in here and he was crying."
Martha Wegner of Highland Park said she knew of Nehls' contributions to the neighborhood and eventually met him at the animal hospital before Ashley died. When Wegner learned of his cat's death, she decided to help.
"I started a GoFundMe account. It's such an easy thing to do," she said.
Wegner shared the page with teachers at Highland Catholic and other community groups.
"The donations just started pouring in," Wegner said.
Nehls said he gave his new kitten a nickname — "Marty" — in honor of Wegner's help.
Community members who donated said they can't remember a time when Nehls hasn't helped keep the neighborhood clean and safe.
"Chuck has been around our neighborhood as long as I've been here," Carruth said. "He just takes on little projects and he'll work and work and work."
She said Nehls never asks for anything, so when she found out about the GoFundMe effort, she felt it was the perfect way to give back.
"When I saw this I was so excited," Carruth said. "We talk to Chuck a lot. He's helped us so much."
Nehls, who grew up in Mason City, Iowa, graduated from Mason City High School in 1979 and has lived in Highland Park for about 30 years. Before that, he studied radio, television and sales at the Brown Institute in the Twin Cities -- which has since closed -- and graduated in 1988.
Nehls said he would have continued in broadcast, but developed muscle tension dysphonia, a voice disorder that keeps the vocal cords from working efficiently. As a result, he started focusing on safety efforts and outdoor cleanup in Highland Park.
He said his motivation for taking care of the neighborhood came from his parents, who taught Nehls and his siblings to pick up trash and respect drivers when crossing the street and the importance of being a good neighbor.
"Anything that comes up I try to help with," he said. "I believe we have the nicest, safest neighborhood in St. Paul."
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