The retired professor of international relations taught in USC Dornsife for 37 years and served as director of the USC graduate programs in London and West Germany.
By Pamela J. Johnson
July 20, 2011
Gunnar Nielsson, retired professor in USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations and expert in European integration, has died. He was 77.
Nielsson died July 10 at a nursing facility in Seal Beach, Calif., after heart complications.
“My father will be missed by all for his humor, intellect and loving spirit,” said his daughter Caitlin Nielsson of Long Beach, Calif. “He epitomized Albert Einstein’s words that ‘intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.’ ”
Nielsson joined USC Dornsife in 1968 as professor of international relations and taught for 37 years until his retirement in 2005. During the ’70s he served as director of the USC graduate program abroad in London and West Germany, focusing on the topics of European integration politics and the European Union.
Over the years, he participated in professional conferences and seminars worldwide dealing with the European Union. In December 1990, he organized a conference in Germany, “After 40 Contentious Years: The Two Germanies Since 1949,” sponsored by USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations, Department of History and USC Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies.
A few of his major publications include Europe 1992: Riding High on the Fourth Wave (Brigham Young Law Review, 1990) and Economic and Political Factors Supporting the Europe 1992 Reform Program (Whittier Law Review, 1990).
Nielsson’s research focused on ethnicity and nationalism in world politics. One part involved mapping ethnicity and nationalism into a global database called “ethnicen.” Using that database, he developed a graphic program that showed the geographic maps of ethnic groups and nations in contrast to the state-centric maps typically used. The database enables researchers to study more systematically the process of political mobilization from ethnic categories to nations.
Most recently, he worked with Steven Lamy, professor of international relations and vice dean for academic programs in USC Dornsife, on an educational outreach program centered on nationalism in Europe.
“Gunnar was the first person I met at USC,” recalled Lamy, who arrived in 1982. “He took me on a grand tour of the campus and introduced me to the School of International Relations. He cared about his students, his colleagues and he was dedicated to the School of International Relations. These are characteristics and values sometimes hard to find.
“Gunnar was a true Danish social democrat who put the welfare of the community over individual self-interest. He was a gentleman, a scholar and a great teacher.”
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1933 to Oluf Nielsson and Ellen Pedersen, Gunnar Nielsson was the eldest of six children. He migrated to the United States in 1956 speaking little English and soon began his studies at Los Angeles City College. After completing an associate’s degree, Nielsson studied political science at UCLA and graduated with honors in 1961. That Fall he became a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and in 1963 earned a master’s in international relations from the University of California, Berkeley with a thesis titled “Commonwealth Consultation and Cooperation: A Case Study of the 1956 Suez Crisis.” He earned a Ph.D. from UCLA in 1966 with his dissertation, “Denmark and European Integration: A Small Country at the Crossroads.”
Nielsson began his teaching career at the University of California, Riverside, where he taught several classes in international relations and comparative politics. Upon arriving at USC, he began his role as faculty adviser for the university's Model United Nations, a job he kept until his retirement.
“It was one the most rewarding teaching positions he held,” Caitlin Nielsson said.
Family members recalled that Nielsson loved to talk politics, travel, teach and watch Premier League soccer games. In addition to being part of the Unitarian community in Long Beach, he was an avid ballroom dancer, held season tickets to the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra and never missed a day reading The New York Times.
John Odell, professor and director of the School of International Relations, remembered how Nielsson warmly welcomed him as a new colleague in 1982.
“Gunnar Nielsson was a dedicated and caring teacher of thousands of international relations students during his long career at USC Dornsife,” Odell said. “Many students remember his course on European international relations, another on ethnicity and nationalism, and the fun of playing roles in Model United Nations under his guidance.
“He was my friend and I miss him.”
Longtime colleague Peter Berton, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, and his family went on trips to Europe with Nielsson and his family.
“Gunnar introduced me to Heidelberg University in Germany, we cruised on a boat on the Neckar River and toured the oldest salt mine in Europe with our families,” Berton said.
At USC, “I have fond memories of meeting him Saturdays for violin lessons for his daughter Lisa and my son Jonathan, who carried their small three-quarter violins,” Berton said.
Berton said Nielsson made great contributions to USC Dornsife by “being mentor for students in the Model United Nations program, having considerable expertise in European affairs, and directing the school’s England and Germany programs.”
One of Nielsson’s past students is Marc Mund, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 2005. Mund was so fond of Nielsson’s teaching he started a Facebook page for former students described as “a group dedicated to the IR School’s finest, Dr. Gunnar Nielsson.” The page is titled, “Gunnar Forever.”
Nielsson is survived by daughters Lisa, Christina and Caitlin and five grandchildren Adrianne, Zachary, Sophia, Raphael and Isaiah. He is also survived by his family in Denmark including two brothers Jorgen (with sister-in-law Bitten) and Nils, and his sister Lissi (with brother-in-law Bob), as well as many nieces, nephews, cousins, extended family and friends.
A memorial service to celebrate the life of Gunnar Nielsson will be held at 5 p.m., Sunday, July 24, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach, 5450 E. Atherton St., Long Beach, Calif., 90815. For more information call (949) 233-1790.
Read the LA Times obituary here.