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AFS Review: In Memoriam

W.F.H. “Bill” Nicolaisen (1927-2016)

Monday, February 15, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jesse A. Fivecoate

By Simon J. Bronner (Penn State Harrisburg) and Elizabeth Tucker (Binghamton University) — 

SJB: We are here to remember and honor Bill Nicolaisen, who passed away on February 15, 2016, at the age of 88 in the company of his family in Aberdeen, Scotland.  I, Simon Bronner, fortunate to be his first American student to go on in folklore studies, and Elizabeth Tucker, a colleague in English and folklore at Binghamton University, are here to represent the American part of his journey, but we also want to recognize others who will fondly remember and honor Bill for the Scottish, Scandinavian, and German parts of his global experience. In addition to earning the title of distinguished professor at Binghamton, he also taught folklore at Ohio State University, University of Aberdeen, and the University of Aarhus. He made his name, if I can invoke some wordplay that he as a punster and onamastician might appreciate, in the genres of names, narratives, ballads, speech, and literature. He left an indelible mark, too, with general theoretical contributions on the geography and philosophy of tradition (particularly with references to ideas of space and time), use of “cultural register” and other perspectives from sociolinguistics, and contemplation of humans as a storytelling species. He had much that was profound to say about identity, particularly the Scottishness, Americanness, Scandinavianness, and Germanness of migratory cultural traditions.  He was a terrific ambassador for folklore and affected many disciplines. He was a leader and organizer par excellence, including the organization of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research with which the AFS is partnering this weekend. Most of all he was a loving, generous soul who had admirers all over the world.

“Bill” as so many friends and colleagues knew him was born Wilhelm Fritz Hermann Nicolaisen on June 13, 1927, in Germany. His father, a professor of agriculture, guided young “Willi” as he was known in childhood toward farmwork, but he was energized more by reading folktales and teaching his hosts English,  and in turn learning their Plattdeutsch dialect and documenting their stories. He bolted the farm from 1948 to 1950 to study language and folklore at the University of Kiel where he came under the influence of two giants of folklore scholarship—Walter Anderson (1885-1962) and Kurt Ranke (1908-1985). In 1950 at the behest of German dialect professor Fritz Braun, he took a teaching scholarship in the German Department at the University of Glasgow, and hence began a love affair with that country and one of its womenfolk named May Marshall. 

ET: Bill and May married in 1958 and had four daughters, all of whom enjoyed linguistic play, songs, and tales as much as they did. When I came to Binghamton University to join the English Department’s faculty in 1977, the Nicolaisen family welcomed me warmly. Dinners at their home always involved lively discussion, laughter, and jokes. It was an honor to be part of their circle of friends.

Bill was an inspired teacher, always seeking new ways to engage his students in the study of folklore. He would drive around the rural area surrounding Binghamton, taking pictures of wagon wheels and other objects that represented “distorted function.” When he talked with his students, his eyes lit up, and his wonderful sense of humor created new kinds of wordplay. For example, when Simon did two things at once, Bill told him he had done those things “Simon-taneously.” A master of multi-tasking himself, Bill kept a sign on the wall of his office that said, “Slow me down, Lord.” Although his pace was swift, he always had time to listen, laugh, and offer a joke or two.

As Simon has explained, Bill was a distinguished scholar who made remarkable contributions to folklore studies in Europe and the United States. He was the only folklorist who served as the president of both the American Folklore Society and the British Folklore Society; he also served as president of the American Name Society, the New York Folklore Society, and other scholarly associations. His half-dozen books and many editorial posts, including a long-term post as editor of Scottish Studies, eloquently attest to his dedication to our field and to Scotland. In particular, his magnum opus, Scottish Place Names (1976), which won the Chicago Folklore Prize, has left an enduring legacy. We can look forward to the publication of his last collection of essays, which will remind us how vibrantly he supported the growth of folklore scholarship and how much he cared about his fellow folklorists worldwide.

SJB: Appropriately to his prodigious scholarship, Bill was the first recipient of the American Folklore Society’s Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Prize. On the other side of the ocean, he received in 2015 the Salhgren Prize, the highest award given by the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy for Swedish Folk Culture.  He also received honorary titles from the Fellows of the American Folklore Society (1982), Folklore Fellows in Finland (1995), International Ballad Commission (2011), and Association for Scottish Literary Studies (2012).  I daresay that one of his proudest moments was when he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen in 2006. On the occasion of his retirement from Binghamton University in 1992, he received a festschrift, designated an AFS Publication, with the title of Creativity and Tradition in Folklore (Utah State University Press). All this is to say that he was greatly admired as a scholar, respected as a global leader, and beloved as a person. When he passed away, his Aberdeen admirers were preparing a hefty volume of folkloristic papers selected from his oeuvre of over 700 articles, and our hope is that his legacy, his words and stories, will continue on both sides of the Atlantic when this labor of love comes out. Even if not physically with us, Bill Nicolaisen’s great scholarly spirit, and name, will live on.  He lies silent now, but we can picture him beaming his broad smile knowing you will be telling stories and singing songs as we meet. Think of him as you do.

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