Obituaries: Elmer Madsen

Elmer Madsen, lifelong tinkerer and inventor, proud son of Danish immigrants, and active environmentalist, lost a long and valiant battle with cancer early in the morning of May 18, with Joanne, wife of 50 years, by his side.


Born in 1931 in West Haven to Johannes (John), a sailor, and mother Bodil near a large saltwater swamp with the smell of the ocean pervading, Elmer never lost his love of nature, boats and bodies of water.


The youngest of three siblings (Shirlee and John Charles both predeceased him), Elmer was a strong swimmer throughout high school, a bright student and a creative artist. At the University of Connecticut, he made it his mission to major in one of the most difficult subjects and so pursued electrical engineering. His first engineering position was at Superior Electric in Bristol.


Just months after being hired, Elmer got called into active duty with the United States Army Signal Corps. For two years, he served as a lieutenant in Heidelberg, Germany, operating the second largest communications center in the world.


Upon his return to Bristol, Elmer started knocking out products and inventions for Superior Electric and became Chief Engineer. After about 20 years there, he worked for 18 years as Technical Coordinator for North American Philips in Cheshire. Then Nidec in Torrington hired him as Director of Research and Development. Over the course of his long career, Elmer secured over 20 patents related to small motors, fans and circuit controls, including one for a protective device that prevents an electrical shock when a hair dryer contacts water.


Elmer’s career continued with a series of his own start-up companies: Locknetics, Delta Controls, and finally, Positive Controls, where he continued to work out of the offices of Arna Machine until his last months.


Elmer also had a tireless work ethic when it came to community service. His contributions to the Bristol area began in the 1960s when he served on the Board of Directors for the Central Connecticut Mental Health Association on the committee that formed the Wheeler Clinic. He served as Trustee of the Plainville YMCA for many years. He was a Trustee of the Nutmeg public TV station. He was a longtime member of the Bristol Rotary Club, holding roles as secretary, treasurer, president, and Paul Harris Fellow over the years, and involved in the club’s revitalization of the Page Park playground. He was a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. He was a director and president of West Cemetery, for which he helped implement the addition of a columbarium where he will be memorialized.


Elmer’s official local environmental actions began with his membership, and eventual directorship of, the Farmington River Watershed Association, pushing for river cleanup. Under his tenure as Chairman of the Bristol Conservation Commission, Bristol became a state pioneer in implementing a bottle, can, and newspaper recycling program. As Vice Chairman of the Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, he helped ensure Pine Lake and the Hoppers became a part of the city’s open space systems. He was a chairman of the Bristol Inlands and Wetlands Commission. He led hikes for the Connecticut Forest and Park  Association.


In the late 1960s, when a large swath of acreage near his home at the border with Burlington was at risk of getting developed, Elmer took up the cause of raising money and support to save the land. He was instrumental in the founding of the Harry C. Barnes Memorial Nature Center, which opened in 1971 and remains a thriving educational and event center to this day, complete with a trail recently named “Elmer’s Way” in his honor. He also helped create the adjacent Seymour Park, save Indian Rock as a preserve, and convince the state to purchase Sessions Woods as a wildlife management area and training facility.


Finally, among the many contributions Elmer made to community youth, he designed and built for the science department of Bristol Eastern High School an electro-magnetic demonstration exhibit, and made a display to engage children in the wonders of science at the city’s new Imagine Nation museum.


Elmer often attributed the reason he was so generous with his time and talents to having nearly drowned in the ocean near his home at the age of five. Following this near-death experience, he soon realized that he wanted to devote his life to helping people. This often took the form of fixing everyone’s gadgets and occasionally actually saving lives himself. Through the years, he rescued several swimmers from the Cape Cod riptide, pulled a Bristol woman out of a burning home, freed a man from a wrecked car, and performed the Heimlich maneuver on various choking victims. He taught first aid and CPR through the Red Cross and Heart Association in Bristol for many years. He was also a longtime board member of the Bristol Hospital.


Elmer is survived by his wife, Joanne (Hartman) Madsen, originally from Windsor; son Erik, who also lives in Bristol and works for the State of the Connecticut; and daughter Krista, a writer in Sleepy Hollow, NY, where she lives with her husband Jeff White and two daughters. Elmer has two grandchildren, Kaia and Adelie White who call him “funny grandpa”; a niece, Sherry Molaskey, of Branford, a clinical nurse and mother to Christopher, of Stamford; and a niece-in-law Cathy Molaskey, mother to Steve and Kym, all of Terryville.


Elmer’s extraordinary life will be evident for many years to come in the legacy he leaves behind in his children, his grandchildren and the beautiful spaces for nature appreciation, recreation and education he created in his chosen home of Bristol. A sailor in spirit, he has embarked on his final voyage. Hand steady to the helm, heeling to leeward, he glides into the sunset.


A memorial service will be held on Saturday, June 3 at 11 a.m. at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 355 Camp Street, Bristol, where Elmer Madsen has long been an active congregant. An informal lunch reception will follow at 1 p.m. at the Barnes Nature Center, 175 Shrub Road, Bristol, showcasing Elmer’s own paintings in the place that marks one of his greatest points of pride. Friends and family are encouraged to share stories and memories of Elmer at the reception.


In lieu of flowers or gifts, donations in Elmer’s name to the Harry C. Barnes Memorial Nature Center are welcome at the reception. Donations may also be mailed to the Barnes Nature Center (make check payable to “Environmental Learning Centers of Connecticut,” noting “Elmer Madsen Memorial/Barnes Nature Center” below. Online contributions can be made at by clicking on the “donate” button.


The Madsen family would like to express their sincere gratitude to the staff and volunteers of Bristol Hospital and Bristol Hospice.