Wilhelm Nicolaisen, a professor emeritus of English at Binghamton University, died Monday, Feb. 15 after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 88 years old.
Nicolaisen’s academic career was long and distinguished. In 1955, he graduated with his doctorate in comparative linguistics, English and German from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He later earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Celtic studies from the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
He began working at BU in 1970, where he taught in the English department, becoming a distinguished professor of English and folklore in 1985. Nicolaisen retired from BU in 1992 and continued to teach at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland until he died.
While at BU, Nicolaisen helped further the University in numerous ways, including chairing the committee that formed the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science. His daughter, Birgit Nicolaisen, a program assistant for University Tutoring Services at BU, said his various involvements partly stemmed from a willingness to help anyone possible.
“I couldn’t tell you the number of committees he chaired on this campus,” Birgit said. “They always came to him because he always did a great job with collaboration and getting people to work together. His work was his passion.”
However, Nicolaisen’s passion wasn’t limited to his work with folklore and Scottish place-names, which is the study of the origin and history of names and naming practices. According to Birgit, he also had a love for singing, food and traveling. Elizabeth Tucker, Nicolaisen’s colleague and the current English undergraduate director at BU, said the time he spent studying in Europe gave him access to an abundance of interesting information and was part of what made him such a masterful and inspirational teacher.
“He was a wonderful man, always full of spirit and enthusiasm,” Tucker said. “He had an excellent sense of humor and loved to make jokes.”
This strong sense of humor is something Nicolaisen’s past student, Simon Bronner, said he remembers well. According to Bronner, Nicolaisen proved that teachers were capable of enjoying themselves with their students. One of his strongest memories of Nicolaisen was when Bronner spotted him strolling through BU’s student center, waving and talking with his students.
“He expressed more than anyone a humane spirit on campus,” Bronner said in an email. “With his unbelievable command of multiple languages, he reached out particularly to international students and made them feel at home.”
During his time at BU, Bronner said he took as many of Nicolaisen’s classes as he could fit into his schedule. Once he graduated, Bronner decided to try his own hand at folklore, later basing his own teaching on Nicolaisen’s example.
“I can say he, and the course, were life-changing for me,” Bronner said. “I felt as if I found my calling in life. He not only brought the subject alive, he made it relevant to the serious concerns of our generation about what was happening to the world.”
Nicolaisen’s tremendous experience and knowledge of his subjects did not go unrecognized by academia. During his lifetime, he served as president of the American Folklore Society (AFS), the New York Folklore Society (NYFS), the American Name Society (ANS) and The Folklore Society (FLS) located in England. In 2002, the AFS awarded Nicolaisen its first ever Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the society. According to Ellen McHale, the executive director of the NYFS, the organization benefited greatly during his time as president.
“He was very loved by the field,” McHale said. “He was always helping other people and wasn’t somebody who acted like he was as important as he really was.”
Nicolaisen is survived by his wife, May, and his four daughters, Birgit, Fiona, Kirsten and Moira.