From a one-room Schoolhouse to Oxford: Learning from a Humble Giant

Hello from the coffee shop on a sunny morning,

There are other things I must do today, but I am a bit in shock this morning. Much like Grandparents or Parents, we see them as immortal as we do not know life without them. I am feeling much the same with another parallel occurrence yesterday. The professor who was my undergraduate advisor, the person who taught me more about learning, about Western Civilization or religion and the person I wish to emulate more than any in my own teaching has finished his mortal journey in this world. Dr. John Wolter Nielsen, fondly know to Dana students as “The Pope,” finished an incredible journey of over 95 years. The stories and memories, the tributes that continue to be written on the Dana Facebook page are numerous and I am sure will continue to multiply in the days to come.

As I told a Dana classmate, Dr. Nielsen epitomized the medieval idea of learning and the Greek/Roman understanding of citizenship. I could tell enough stories to create a book, and even that could never do justice to this intellectual giant who chose to spend his life at a college that came from his same ethnic roots. His appreciation for his Danish heritage was infectious. In my first trip abroad (January 1981), spending time with him in Copenhagen, Roskilde, Østerbro was almost magical. His eyes sparkled and his step, which was quick to begin with, quickened as he showed us around the city. A number of people have remembered his classroom lectures, the breathing of breath into Adam comes to mind. There was his love of books and his reminding us of certain books we needed to have on our bedside stand (table). I remember going to his house the first time and seeing his own library. I still wish I had written them all down. There are three things I hold particularly dear in our numerous conversations (and it is likely I have referred to them in previous blogs, but not as a sort of Papal trivium of life-changing statements). The first happened during that very trip to Europe. I was blessed to spend some time in the same first class railcar as we travelled from one location to another. He, as was is way, asked about my background and my family. I was recounting the story of losing a brother at the age of 26 (I was 21 when he passed) a few years prior. I told him about the night in the hospital when he had passed. I told him about my looking out the window as we found he was gone and uttering simply, but emotionally, “Fuck!” As my eyes filled with tears yet again, he calmed replied in his knowing way, “That might be the most profound prayer you have ever uttered.” I stared at him and nodded without really understanding. He continued, “How different is your vernacular plea out of desperation from the lament of the Psalmist? And then he recounted the 22nd Psalm. I have never looked at the F word in the same manner. The second occurence was when we were talking about his being a professor. I think we were sitting in Parnassus, the learning center for the Humanities program. We were talking about my future aspirations, which at that time were rather confined to being an eventual parish pastor. I asked him about being a teacher and his answer was profound. He said, I am not just a teacher, I am a professor. It is who I am; it is what I profess. It encompasses my entire being. It is what I do, I profess it; I live it.” This might not be word for word, but it is close. I walked away that day in awe of this incredible man, one who walked the same sidewalks, hills, and halls I did. The third, and equally profound statement was spoken in late February or early March of 1984, after I graduated. I had come back to Dana to visit someone, and I had lost signifiant weight because of what would eventually be diagnosed as Crohn’s. Back then, I weighed maybe 150 and I was down to about 125-130. I did not look great and when I saw him, he was more than willing to tell me so. He said, “Michael, you do not look well.” I told him a bit about what was happening. He paused, pondered, and then said, again knowingly and with care, “Michael, I am going to say this to you in a different way, but you will understand. Your theology of grace works fine for everyone but yourself.” The number of times I have struggled with my health, looked in the mirror, and stared at the gaunt or struggling person is more than I have fingers, and each time I can still hear his voice in my head. He pushed me that day, and still does now to accept God’s grace.

Dr. Nielsen was almost mystical, and he had a way of pulling people in and teaching them how to think. That is perhaps the most significant thing he did. He never told people what to think, but he was intent on teaching them how to think, analyze, and integrate life. This is the lesson I have taken from him. Any of my students reading this – they now know from where that came. As I read his obituary yesterday, these words came across louder than most any of the amazing things he did. He “implemented and directed an innovative humanities program involving experiential learning, centered in the Parnassus Room. Many Dana students were introduced to opera, theater, classical music, poetry and drama as well as national and international travel through this program (Facebook).” My commitment to experiential learning continues today. It is not easy to maintain that work, and it is not always appreciated. He knew this, and I know it today. Pushing people to think, analyze, and look beyond the obvious requires commitment. The fact that every student at Dana was required to take this course was not always appreciated, but that three semester sequence did more to prepare me for life, and now a life in the classroom than I could have ever imagined. Those Hum study guides are still in my office. Learning is experiential. We are not vessels merely to be filled and then pour out whatever was dumped in. Working with Dr. Nielsen in his RELIGION 342 Christian Thought class was still one of the most important classes I took in terms of understanding what it meant to be faithful. Little did I know that reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison would eventually come back as an essential element of my own dissertation. Certainly my work later with Dr. James Burtness, in seminary and his scholarship on Bonhoeffer would be also important. Then there was Dr. Dale Sullivan in my doctoral work, but it started with the Pope. As I write this and ponder, what I realize so much more clearly is even Bonhoeffer was an experientialist, if I can make that a word. It is in the actual doing that we learn. One of my students this semester wrote that they wanted the professor to teach them; they did not think experiential learning had any benefit. I was somewhat shocked by their admission, and even more alarmed when I considered their career path. Perhaps someday, they will see it differently.

This past year has been a year of adaptation. I think this is another thing Dr. Nielsen was incredibly adept at managing. Even as a person of profound principle, he always understood the circumstances of the world around him. His poetry, his Christmas messages, and his unparalleled brilliance at articulating his world were beyond insightful. What was it that made his mind so masterful of anything and everything? What was it that established such humility in spite of such ingenuity? His ability to gather such prodigious people around him as co-partners in the Humanities program is no small feat. I understand this more now that I am in the academy. The ability to get other faculty to co-teach is like creating harmony in a sandbox of four-year olds, but somehow he did it. The legacy and benefit of that program for 1000s cannot be overstated. As I read one of my favorite classmate’s comments about Hum, as we called it, I could not help by smile. My appreciation for art, music, architecture, politics, religion, poetry, philosophy, theatre, travel, opera, all of it, comes from that three semester sequence. And all of this comes from the brainchild of a person who began his education in a one-room Minnesota schoolhouse. It reminds me of much of the Laura Ingalls Wilder beginnings we learned about as children. He is a real-life version of that, a person whose insatiable thirst for knowledge and the willingness to share that passion changed generations of students. Seldom does one make such a difference at a small liberal arts college. Seldom is one content to remain in that same small Nebraska town.

There is so much more to write, and there are so many more feelings that well up within me as I write this. The Pope taught me more about life and goodness than he will ever know, or perhaps now he will. Whenever I spoke with him and complemented him for what he had done, he would respond along the lines of “how nice of you to say that.” I remember tromping through the snow with him in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I realized how tall he was as I tried to almost hop from footstep to footstep in the waist-high snow. He was much taller and his long legs certainly outpaced this person who has never made it beyond 5’10”. As I attempt to write something faintly sufficient about this wonderful man, I know it is impossible to do so. I spoke with a former classmate from Dana who is at the Danish American Archives and Library this morning. After our wonderful conversation, she said, “Thanks, Pops,” which is what she called me when we were at Dana. It brought back such wonderful memories. Thank you, Jill. Dr. Nielsen epitomized that spirit at Dana. His scholarly influence, his pastoral care, and his principled life leave a legacy that he would always underplay. His bark might no longer be heard in the physical reality of our lives, but the incredible echo of that bark will remain in our lives until our own journey’s end. Well done good and faithful servant. I have a feeling that people like Plato, Aristotle, Niebuhr, and Bonhoeffer have a space at their table for you. Thank you for being that person in so many lives, but particularly to me. When I hear this song, I will forever remember you in yet another way.


Thanks for reading,

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

One thought on “From a one-room Schoolhouse to Oxford: Learning from a Humble Giant

  1. Dr. Nielsen sounds like an incredible spirit, one that held others accountable through both his compassion and deep listening. Reading through your words I felt as though I had known him myself. It is apparent that he cared, genuinely, through his willingness to both be so blunt with you, so direct from a place of care, and also so thoughtful in his response to your hardships. There is something to be said of anyone willing to dedicate their life’s work to help others through sincerely showing people new ways to consider the world around them, and through showing up where it really matters. To reconsider and think in ways that are truly applicable to the complexity of life. To not only be a teacher, but to commit to a life of allegiance to education and knowledge.

    I love this idea of becoming “experientialists” – that we aren’t intended to simply shove information into our minds to regurgitate for academic pursuits, but instead we can learn by doing and by pushing ourselves in ways that we otherwise had not imagined. We can use our intellectual journey to acquire so much more than miscellaneous facts. It’s crucial that education is not watered down to memorization only to be later forgotten. The most impactful teachers I’ve had have been folks who, as in your experience with Dr. Nielsen, didn’t tell students what to think or feel, but instead offered the encouragement needed for self-inquiry, and the openness to find oneself through the experiences of learning and acquiring knowledge. Rather than telling others how to think, allow them to see the value in how they could think by becoming participants in new experiences. Something you wrote stood out to me, and while I already know it to be true, the reminder was encouraging:

    “We are not vessels merely to be filled and then pour out whatever was dumped in.”

    I couldn’t agree more. And this all too common method of teaching/learning results in students believing they aren’t intelligent or good at things. Much like the standardized tests we are forced into. How can one thrive intellectually when all they are doing is absorbing information they don’t even care about, or that they don’t understand how to apply? It makes for much more effective and exciting learning to give people an opportunity to explore and infuse themselves into their learning. Professors like Dr. Nielsen are a gift. To have such a profound impact on others, to inspire others while showing them new ways of seeing the world without force. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about him and how he left an impact on the way you teach and help us as students to grow and learn by doing the things we may not always believe ourselves capable of!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: