In memoriam: John H. Nissen, 1944-2013

John Nissen Paris with pizzaJohn Nissen left us on October 6 at the age of 69, due to complications from prostate cancer. As a figure in my life, he will be impossible to replace.

My employer, teacher, and mentor, John was one of my dearest friends. It’s a bit strange to say that about someone four decades your senior, but John had an uncanny ability to transcend generations.

We met in 2002, when he invited me to join his monthlong service-learning program in Paris. We quickly became close, and I worked as his right-hand man for several years after, returning to the City of Lights each July through 2006.

John was a brilliant, feisty man, an educator who cared little for bureaucracy and politics. As a result, he was fired from almost every job he ever held. His strengths were those of a true teacher: in connecting with people – in making others feel understood, like there was someone in their corner – and in leading a life of principle.

I try to live my own in his mold. I’ve found it incredibly difficult.

Some of my approach is rooted in negative reinforcement. John often, for whatever reason, wore his glasses halfway down his nose. Sometimes when he was feeling thoughtful, he would look at you above the glasses, dropping his head a bit to achieve the required angle, his pursed smile still visible. When he was disappointed in something you’d done, however, he would crane his neck, his eyes falling below the wire frames.

I began to do whatever I could to avoid this admonishment, which meant that I had not lived up to John’s high standards – and thus, by the transitive property, my own. I came to call it The Glasses Test: whenever I’m about to do something, I think, “Would John give me the glasses?” And if he would, I do not do that thing.

At first, The Glasses Test was limited to circumstances in which I might actually get John’s special form of reprimand, whether it was for a lax punishment I’d given to a wayward student or for something I’d said in defense of an action. It very quickly became the default assessment for nearly any decision I had to make. Such was the way John carried himself: you wanted to use him as a role model, a guide for what was right and wrong. You wanted to be John – to transplant his experience and his ethical sense into your own mind.

John Nissen hazy

Even as he neared his end, John remained stoic. He weighed each decision on treatment with as little subjectivity as he could, listing pros and cons when calculating whether, say, trying to extend the battle for three months was worth the emotional cost – not to himself, but to those he loved.

Socrates would have appreciated the way John kept strong in the face of death. And he certainly would have loved John’s way of listening. One of my favorite quotes is what Socrates told someone who interrupted his conversation (and I paraphrase): “I’m speaking with this man. Everyone else can go hang.”

John enjoyed this passage when I introduced him to it, and I’m sure he understood why I did so: it described him perfectly. (I’m surprised he didn’t use “go hang” more often, as it suited his often-archaic vocabulary.) John had a way of making you feel as if you were the only person in the world, as if your problem were the only urgent matter, as if your stance on a controversial subject were unassailably valid.

In fact, it felt like John never argued – indeed, sometimes, that he rarely spoke. In groups, he would carefully consider every position, sitting quietly between infrequent questions for clarification; when all others had finished, he would say, “Here’s what I think – and feel free to change it however you like,” before presenting a fleshed-out, cogent view. More often than not his recommendation was taken, unedited and unabridged. He entered conversations to understand, not to prove his intelligence.

We didn’t always see eye-to-eye on politics, but instead of pointing out how wrong I was – and boy, was I – John had his own way of convincing me: he would snail-mail me photocopies of articles from the New York Times or The New Yorker relating to some discussion we’d had several months prior. “Thinking of you,” he’d write in the margin in his chicken-scratch. Or “You’ll enjoy this.” Nothing more. He’d send letters from time to time, but his attempts at indoctrination always came on their own. And eventually, they worked.

John was one of two men who had such a profound effect on the way I approach the world – the way I think, the way I assess a situation, the way I carry myself. We met only because of the death of the first, Scott Aborn, my French teacher in high school, another Man for All Seasons. John invited me to Paris after he heard my eulogy at Scott’s memorial, and the rest followed.

Now John, too, is gone, and there’s no obvious candidate to fill his role. Many who spoke at Saturday’s reception referred to John as their North star. Now this flame has been extinguished, and I feel lost. That I met John only in the wake of Scott’s passing gives me hope that such a person might appear yet.

I know where to find his spirit, though. One of my favorite places on the planet is the cathedral at Chartres. It was among John’s, too. When we exchanged birthday gifts – he and I were both born on May 30, although for a long time he wouldn’t divulge the year – he would often give me a book inscribed with the message, “I’ll see you in Chartres on the Judgment Day!” I imagine that he has now found his rightful spot in one of those beautiful stained-glass windows, the sun shining through the soul of a brilliant life.

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4 Responses to In memoriam: John H. Nissen, 1944-2013

  1. Keith,

    That was a beautifully written piece. I’m sorry for your loss. I see a lot of his qualities in you.


    Jenet Levy
    Associate Broker
    Halstead Property, LLC
    212 381-4268 Office
    718 744-7158 Mobile

    Please excuse typos, recent iphone convert.

  2. Dear Keith,

    This was a lovely post honoring the special friendship you shared.

    I am sorry for your loss, yet I’m so glad that you had this marvelous mentor to enrich your life.

    While you may have lost this “North star”, I somehow feel you don’t need a replacement. John, clearly, has left you with an accurate and invaluable roadmap that will assist you as you continue your journey.


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