Late on the night of Friday, Dec. 9, Town of Ulster police officer and Clifford M. Miller Middle School resource officer Travis Nissen left a restaurant to return to his bride of 14 weeks, Kristy. For reasons still unknown, but continuing to be investigated, he drove his 2001 Buick off Route 28 near Dubois Road and straight into a utility pole. He was killed in the crash.
Mourners and family sympathizers with heavy hearts waited on line at Keyser Funeral Home in Kingston Tuesday afternoon for more than two hours to express their condolences on the visceral, untimely death of a young man who family and friends describe as being so full of life. On Wednesday, dozens of police officers from all over the region, clad in blue and grey, somberly gathered on a sunny day with Nissen’s family and friends for the funeral Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Uptown Kingston — the same church where Nissen was so recently wed.
Kristy Canavan Nissen, a special education teacher at Miller, said this week she met her husband at the school where they both worked. They soon became well acquainted, sharing the same students. Kristy said she was immediately taken with the young, handsome man in uniform. “We always made a joke that it was his blue eyes, because he had big blue eyes,” Kristy recalled. “But he was great with kids. He was loveable and warm. He was a great guy. Very affectionate. He had a great sense of humor. We dated months before he even kissed me. He was so shy around me. He was the perfect gentleman. Every date he walked me to the door, and always opened doors for me. We lived together for the last year and a half, he did everything. He just did everything. He treated me like a princess.”
Kristy said when the couple decided to get married, Miller Principal Jo Burruby popped into her classroom to announce the couple’s intentions, insisting that the couple needed, prior to tying the knot, the students’ approval. The kids overwhelmingly gave it.
Kristy said her husband was often engaged with students during the day and in different types of after-school activities. As a school resource officer who thoroughly enjoyed the outdoors, Travis ran a “Boys Club,” “where boys talked about ‘guy’ stuff,” Kristy explained. After school, Travis played basketball in the gym with kids who wanted to play basketball with him. “Last week he took a couple of my kids and played board games. It was part of his job, but he did go to every dance, every function and every school concert — 99 percent of the time he was working, but he was there mingling and interacting and helping out.”
Kristy described her husband’s natural magnetism, which always drew students to him. “I got a couple calls today that some of the students are upset,” said Kristy. “I have a lot of Facebook messages that kids are devastated. They feel like they lost their best friend. That’s how Travis was — people wanted to be with him, hang out with him. He could bring out the best. He could make the kids feel comfortable and safe, they would flock to him.”
That inherent trait is what Kristy misses the very most above all so far, she said. “He was my best friend,” Kristy said. “I miss the time I had with him the most. He could just sense whatever mood or feeling I had and fix every problem. He could pick up on things so fast, like feelings and emotions. He could talk me down when I was upset. Calm me down when I was upset. He was my best friend.”
Greg Pettinato, manager of an ophthalmologic pharmaceutical company was raised side-by-side with the gregarious Nissen as brothers from the age of 7. He said this week that people, upon meeting Travis, first noticed Nissen’s “million-dollar smile.”
“He had a great sense of humor and was very outgoing,” said Pettinato. “He liked to joke around and was a wise guy. You can tell how many people he has touched by the amount of attention that he has drawn in the media, social media, phone calls, visitors. There are multiple YouTube videos with slide-show photos and people adding text. One was done by his sister in-law. One was done by a student he impacted at Miller.”
Pettinato said Nissen’s sports ability and talents were exceptional, ranging from fishing and hunting to golf and baseball. “Everything [Nissen] did, he was good at. Everything.” Pettinato pointed to Nissen’s sports records as the multiple-time MVP for both baseball and golf at Onteora High School, from which Nissen graduated in 2002. “The record for the lowest golf round and best scores are held by both Travis and his younger brother Kyle at Onteora,” said Pettinato. “He really inspired Kyle to play, also to hunt and fish.”
Pettinato said that Nissen expressed interest in being a police officer for as long as he could remember. Nissen graduated from Ulster County Community College in 2005 and was “Top Gun” at the police academy. He also played on softball teams in Olive and Rosendale.
Pettinato agrees that everyone, everyone was drawn to Nissen. “He just had a way of communicating and touching people. He wasn’t the loudest guy in the room, but he could connect with anybody, whether it was kids or colleagues. I know he loved working with kids. He could communicate with everyone.”
‘A great kid’
Pettinato’s father, owner of Al’s Restaurant in Phoenicia, was known to Nissen as “Uncle Paul” Pettinato. “We spent a lot of time together,” said Paul. “He was a great kid. The things he loved were sports, he was a great golfer, and he loved to fish and hunt. As long as he had a fishing pole, golf club or a baseball ball bat in his hand he was happy. He excelled in every sport. He was one of the top golf players in the county — he played at Wiltwyck Country Club.”
Paul Pettinato also testified to Travis Nissen’s charisma. “There was no one that didn’t like him. He was one of those people who when you met him, you instantly loved him.” Paul sympathized deeply for Nissen’s mother being forced to bury her own son.
“The members of the Ulster Police Department will remember Officer Nissen for his warm smile, his love for the outdoors and his even greater love for the students which he was entrusted to protect. He will never be forgotten,” said Town of Ulster Police Chief Matthew Taggard in a statement.
Miller Middle School opened Monday morning with a two-hour delay and closed early Tuesday to allow staff to attend the wake. Services and counselors are in place all week for grieving students and parents. Miller Vice Principal Kim Terwilliger pointed out that his popularity was evinced in the huge number of people who attended his services. “Travis displayed a wonderful sense of humor,” she said. “He held students accountable for their actions yet did so with compassion and understanding. He connected with students by building their trust and supporting them when they needed it. He walked the halls, participated in after-school activities and spent time in many classrooms. He kissed a kangaroo…played basketball with students, and attended school functions.”
Students were able to write messages to Travis in cards or poster paper that was provided on the walls of the gym and cafeteria, said Terwilliger. “The messages were moving.”
A Shokan resident at the time of his passing, Travis Nissen was born May 29, 1984 in Kingston. Besides his wife, survivors are his mother, Mary R. Merck; his father, David F. Nissen and stepfather, Richard J. Merck; brothers Greg Pettinato and Kyle J. Nissen, grandparents Dorothy Jacks and Pat Merck; cousin Adam McGrath; uncle James McGrath; and many other aunts, uncles and cousins.
The family suggests in lieu of flowers memorial contributions be made to The Travis A. Nissen Memorial Fund, c/o of Merck CPAs, PO Box 3537, Kingston, NY, 12402. Condolences may be left at www.KeyserFuneralService.com.++