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In Memoriam: Nils Hasselmo

Written by Dr. Dag Blanck, Augustana College & Uppsala University 

Nils Hasselmo passed away on January 23, 2019. He was born in the summer of 1931 in the small community of Köla, in rural western Värmland in Sweden, close to the Swedish-Norwegian border. Although his distinguished career would take him to many parts of the world, in particular the United States, Värmland and its culture and scenery remained close to Nils’ heart throughout his life.  He grew up the son of the local public school teacher and organist in the parish church. As a gifted student in secondary school it was, as Nils himself pointed out, almost given that he would attend Uppsala University. Following his obligatory military service, Nils enrolled at Sweden’s oldest university at age 21. Here he joined Värmland’s Nation (the student organization for Värmlanders) and studied Scandinavian languages, literature, and history, with the goal of becoming a teacher. 

Nils Hasselmo
At the rededication when the Swenson Center moved into newly renovated Denkmann Memorial Building in 1991. From left, Dr. Thomas Tredway, Augustana president; Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, president emeritus; Martin Carver, president, board of directors; Jacob Wallenberg, representing the Wallenberg Foundations (Stockholm); and Dr. Nils Hasselmo, president, University of Minnesota. 

Nils belonged to a generation for whom the United States was very important. He had grown up listening to American music on short wave radio, and told about how he read Huckleberry Finn and played cowboys and Indians as a child. The war experiences were also very formative for Nils, as were the numerous American links in his home area through the substantial emigration to the U.S. An academic American opportunity presented itself while Nils was in Uppsala through the Mauritzson scholarship to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. In 1956 he set sail for New York and the New World. 

His time at Augustana College would change his life. It was here he met his first wife Patricia Tillberg and found his academic field of inquiry. During his first semester on campus Nils encountered a major collection of the Swedish-American press in the attic of the college library consisting of hundreds of Swedish-language newspapers published in the U.S. and dutifully collected by the Augustana library. These papers were a window into the lively Swedish-American culture and identity that had been forged by Swedish immigrants and their descendants in the U.S., a topic that immediately caught Hasselmo’s interest and stayed with him his whole life. 

After graduating from Augustana, Hasselmo continued to Harvard University where he studied with the Norwegian-American linguist Einar Haugen for a PhD in linguistics on the topic of “American Swedish.” He then taught at Augustana College and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before becoming professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Minnesota in 1965. Hasselmo was at Minnesota for 18 years, as head of the Scandinavian Department and of the Center for Northwest European Language and Area Studies. His administrative skills were soon recognized and he served as associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and vice president for administration and planning. He left Minnesota in 1983 to become provost and senior vice president at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After five happy years in Arizona, Nils returned as the 13th president of the University of Minnesota in 1988, a position he held until 1997. Between 1997 and 2006 he was the president of Association of American Universities (AAU), an interest organization for the sixty leading research universities in the U.S. and Canada.

Nils made significant contributions to Swedish-American studies, in particular to the linguistic aspects of the Swedish-American community. They culminated in his 1974 book Amerikasvenska which traces the development of the specific form of the Swedish language that developed in America. The book is still a classic in the field of immigrant bilingualism and language contact. His interests went beyond the purely linguistic and he managed to show how a Swedish-American cultural sphere was created in the U.S. with roots in both Sweden and the U.S. In this he foreshadowed much of the development in immigration history and ethnic studies of late 20th century.

Over the years he assumed many positions of academic leadership. He served as president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study (SASS), as chair of the board of the Swedish-American Historical Society, and was member of the advisory committee of the Swenson Swedish Immigration Research Center. He also worked tirelessly to promote academic and cultural contacts between Sweden and the United States. He received many recognitions, including honorary doctorates from Uppsala University, Augustana College and North Park University, several Swedish royal decorations, the Carl Sandburg Medal, and became the Swedish-American of the Year in 1991. His contributions to the Swenson Center were quite important and even after he left the committee he continued to support the Center in many ways. His O. Fritiof Ander lecture in 1997 on “Language Policy and Language Politics in the U.S. and Europe” was especially memorable. 

In recent years the term transnational has become popular to describe the flow of persons and ideas back and forth between countries, which create enduring links between them. Nils Hasselmo was such a person. He moved back and forth between both sides of the Atlantic, transcending and connecting the academic and cultural spheres of Sweden and the United States. We stand in gratitude for his work and life.

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