On Sunday, October 4, 2020, George H. Nilsen, 95, passed away in Johnson City, TN. Son of Olga Marie Jensdatter and Jorginus (George) Mattias Nilsen, George was born and raised in Bergland, MI. He was predeceased by 6 siblings, his youngest son, Peter and daughter-in-law Nina Albertina Nilsen and is survived by his wife Jean Hittle Nilsen; brother Owen Thompson of Hot Springs, AR; three sons, John (Joanne) of Syracuse, NY; Matthew of LeRoy, NY, David (Iona) of Hubbardsville, NY and 4 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren and numerous nephews and nieces.
A 1947 graduate of Colgate University, George served in the United States Marine Corps and was a veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, retiring after 25 years with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. During that time, he earned his master’s degree at the Bread Loaf School of English where a local paper did a feature story on his unusual living quarters while taking summer classes, a roomy bivuoac tent to save money on housing! It was during that time that he taught military history for the NROTC Program at Yale University. After earning his PhD from Michigan State University he taught English at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, TN from 1972 to 1986.
George was born in 1925 on May 17th, a date important to his Norwegian immigrant parents. The 17th of May, or “syttende mai” is celebrated in Norway as constitution day so it was fitting that George titled the first book of several that he wrote, “A Syttende Mai Son,” recalling how his father proudly introduced him to the men in the town tavern. An autobiography, it gives a glimpse of life in a rugged logging town during the 1930s. He describes the stark reality of the depression as felt in this remote town when he writes, “one morning the six o’clock mill whistle didn’t blow…the noon whistle didn’t blow…the mill had shut down.” There was no warning of a stock market crash and Great Depression. “No mill = no money coming in. Unemployment insurance was far in the future.”
The Township of Bergland, today, bills itself as the gateway to the Western U.P. (Upper Peninsula) and “Big Snow Country.” And, indeed, you can almost feel the bone chilling cold as George notes in his book that in the town’s “winter’s dark,” below freezing is the normal temperature. He takes us along the treacherous icy paths as he and his stepbrother maneuver a rickety sled every evening to deliver milk to villagers, being careful not to spill one drop of the precious milk, the sale of which would add to the meager family income. He brings to life vivid memories of hitching up the plow to the horse to drive furrows in the stony ground… and digging his way through the snow to get to the barn to complete his chores in frigid mornings before running breathlessly to catch the bus for school. He humorously and self-effacingly recounts throughout his book, events along the way in his youthful journey which led to the development of the man he was to become.
He paints pictures in the pages of his book of a strong woman, his mother, and her cunning and will to survive and care for her 8 children; and the part that he played doing a man’s job on the farm before and after he went to school. So, a “can do” attitude, always saying yes to a challenge and no whining(!) really came to define George as he dutifully tackled his chores everyday contributing to his mother’s goal of keeping a few steps ahead of the tax man. But there was another side to this young schoolboy who was conscious of the fact that he smelled “like the farm.” As his childhood friend, Marko Lulich remembers it, George probably read every book in the school library and he played taps on the trumpet every Memorial Day in the town. Books and music…and discipline. That was George. And there were some heart-wrenching moments in the book where he knew that his heart had to be “more hardened to emotional pain.” “Depression farm reality,” he called it. So, add stoic and pragmatic to the face he presented to the world.
Coming from a wild untamed land, it’s no wonder that the Highlands of Roan just outside of Johnson City, TN called to him. His ever-adventurous and artistic wife, Jean, found a historic log house in Virginia. And after taking it apart log by log (because the flat bed truck couldn’t make it up the narrow road), they and some friends had an old fashioned barn raising expanding the house already on a 40 plus acre plot they called “Little Cove Creek Farm.” Reading in a rocking chair on the front porch gave one a comforting sense of peace. Breathing the clean air, new vitality; and gazing up an astoundingly thick blanket of stars at night, a sense of the enormity of the universe and the hope of heaven. But, most of all, spending time at the farm was to know this remarkable man…and his equally remarkable wife, Jean. It was their hope that the land would be forever preserved so they donated it to the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy.
George loved music probably as much as he loved literature, poetry and writing and as a young man learned to play the violin like his Dad. He also played trumpet and later in life learned to play guitar regaling his students at ETSU with old English ballads. He was an avid golfer who faithfully did a fitness routine at home well into his 90s.
We cannot express the gratitude that we have for the staff at Colonial Hill where he and Jean lived and for the nurses who lovingly cared for him in his last days at NHC Skilled Care Facility in Johnson City. Their daily updates kept us close to him. One of the nurses helped us set up a Facetime with him just a day and a half before he took his last breath. His son, John, was able to tell his Dad what he had meant to him especially the core values he passed on to him. John’s last words to his Dad were wishing him luck on his next journey to a place, he added, where we hope to meet him again.
A burial service and military funeral honors ceremony will take place at Woodlawn Cemetery in Syracuse, NY, on October 29th. For tribute and guestbook, visit: https://baldwincremation.com.