By: Kimberly Juhas (Whetstone Contributor)
With his shaggy dark gray hair, scruffy white beard, salty language and rumpled plaid shirts, Nielsen’s surface reveals a hippie past, and a Buddhist present.
“He’s a very interesting dude and he’s lead a cool life,” said media arts student Nick Thompson. “He’s laid back but he knows how he wants everything done.”
Nielsen came from a strict Catholic family from Chicago. His mother, Helen, was a housewife, and his father Ernest, worked with building code enforcement in charge of inspecting commercial refrigeration and air conditioning systems for the city of Chicago.
The youngest of four, Nielsen found ways to get into trouble.
“Once in middle school, I gave my teacher the middle finger,” he said. “Of course, he caught me. He pulled me into the boys’ room and gave me a good whack. My parents could not have been happier that I was disciplined in such a violent manner.”
By the mid-Sixties, Nielsen was a teenager entering into an all-boy’s high school.
“Going to high school in the Sixties during the time of the space race meant training to be a scientist,” Nielsen said. “If you weren’t good at math or science you had no business being there.”
School was not the only thing keeping Nielsen occupied. It was the thought of girls and the idea of not practicing his Catholic faith because of it.
“It was a mortal sin to have nasty thoughts about girls,” Nielsen said. “Why practice a faith where I would be committing a sin every day?”
After high school, Nielsen enrolled at the University of Illinois. He graduated in June of 1972 with a communications degree when he was 21. After graduation, Nielsen devoted most of two years of his life living in communes.
“Communes are communities who share everything,” Nielsen said.
He also hitchhiked.
During one trip, Nielsen hitchhiked to Canada and Mexico, and into New York City twice from Illinois.
“You would stand on the sides of roads with your thumb out hoping someone would pull over,” he said.
Back in Illinois, Nielsen worked in a vegetarian restaurant, a factory making motorcycle accessories, and planted trees on a tree farm.
At 23, Nielsen fell in love with his first wife, Andrea Schuver, whom he met in a commune. They had two children.
Nielsen worked as a manager of a hippie car repair garage, and trimmed trees for the city of Urbana.
“I worked with weird guys while trimming trees,” Nielsen said. “They were the type of guys who would punch you in the arm to say hello.”
But they weren’t all weird.
One guy I worked with who was my good friend saved my life when I fell from 20 feet up in a tree and landed on a picket fence with the wood staves sticking through my chest,” Nielsen said. “My lung was punctured and I could not move or breathe.”
His friend lifted Nielsen off the fence and held his wounds shut with his hands so he could breathe.
“I decided after that to not do such dangerous work,” Nielsen said. “And I owe my life to that friend. I would have been dead at 27 years old.”
Other jobs Nielsen held include work as an all-night disc jockey, a movie projectionist, and as audio and visual tech support for the University of Illinois. It was there he became interested in taking courses and ended up earning a Ph.D. in Communications Research in 1985.
“At that point in my life, I had lived as a well-educated but relatively poor young married man for several years and saw life from a different perspective than when I first got into college in 1968,” Nielsen said. “I was a young college undergrad and a cranky, wiser grad student with serious responsibilities. I was not happy with the life I was living.”
Nielsen was on the fast track to becoming a professor.
But his marriage was on the fast track to a divorce. They lived separate lives, he said. She was raised Jewish and he was raised Catholic. For the 11 years they were married, they fought continuously, Nielsen said.
“I thought you could love anybody,” Nielsen said, and that it could last. It didn’t.
He met his second wife, Betsy, in 1984, when he was hired to teach at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. When they first met, both were unhappily married, but when they realized they were both “kindred spirits,” they had to be with each other.
Betsy also was raised Catholic and had lived through all the same wild times that Nielsen did – except she lived 500 miles away from him at Ohio University in Athens.
“It was such a relief to meet someone who accepted and loved me in such a committed way,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen said Betsy made him see that happiness with a spouse was possible.
“I assumed that people fell in love, and then spent the rest of the time falling out of love,” he said.
Problems emerged in his relationship with his two children.
“It tore me up to give up my kids, but I did not want to have a huge custody battle and put them in the middle of it, so I settled for weekends while we still lived in Florida,” Nielsen said.
When Nielsen and Betsy got their jobs at Wesley in 1989, the couple took their own child and Betsy’s daughter from her first marriage to Dover.
“The pain for me and my first two kids was incredible,” he said. “At the end of every Christmas or summer visit of my first-marriage kids, I would drive them to the Philly airport and then have a complete emotional breakdown on I-95 and have to pull over and stop driving.”
As time passed, the visits became less frequent, and, eventually, Nielsen’s son stopped coming completely.
“He won’t communicate with me, so I have to accept that and move on with my life,” he said. “I did let him know that I would always be open to trying to help him with his feelings about me if he ever wanted to deal with it.”
But his family is growing.
Nielsen and his wife Betsy got their first grandchild this past Christmas, thanks to his middle daughter, Hannah, who lives in Brooklyn.
“Quite a present for the whole family,” he said.
His Wesley family also is strong.
“He’s always been more than willing to help me with stuff and is an easy person to talk to,” said Linnea Cavallo, a media arts major. “He explains what he’s talking about and then shows what he’s saying so we can see it in action.”