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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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President Emeritus Nickerson brokered peace in stormy times

James Nickerson, president of Minnesota State Mankato during the turbulent Vietnam War years, was widely credited with averting injuries during student demonstrations. He died March 6.

By Steve Alexander, Star Tribune Staff Writer [published in the Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN, 3/10/2009]

A talented negotiator, the Mankato State president reached out to all sides while war protests raged.

James Nickerson, president of Minnesota State University in Mankato during the turbulent Vietnam War years, was widely credited with averting injuries during student demonstrations.

Nickerson headed what was then called Mankato State College from 1966 to 1973, and played a key role after the 1970 Ohio National Guard killings of four student demonstrators at Kent State University set off college student demonstrations nationwide.

Friends say Nickerson used his unusual negotiating skills to calm feelings among both angry students who felt they had no voice in the conduct of the Vietnam War and unhappy Mankato residents irritated at how student demonstrations hurt their businesses and challenged law enforcement.

Nickerson died Thursday in Mankato at age 98.

At a time when the slogan "don't trust anyone over 30" was popular with students, the then-62-year-old Nickerson deliberately wore a beard, which endeared him to students but not necessarily to townspeople, recalled his daughter Ann Lueck of Eden Prairie.

In "Out of Chaos," a 2006 book about the period authored by Nickerson with contributions from former students and faculty, stories were told about how Nickerson allowed student demonstrators to occupy the university's administration building while he stayed there with them.

It also lauded his efforts to mediate an imminent clash between sheriff's deputies and student war protesters who were blocking a bridge.

But he also stood up to student demonstrators by standing at the side of visiting Dow Chemical representatives, who were unpopular with students because the company manufactured explosive napalm used in Vietnam, his daughter said.

Paul Hadley of Mankato, retired chief executive of the Mankato Chamber of Commerce, said Nickerson skillfully helped townspeople and students see each others' points of view.

"There was a student uprising, and Jim and I worked together to keep it from becoming bloody, which we were able to do," Hadley said. "He had the strange combination of having a brilliant mind while being a man of action and a man who had surprising concern for others."

James Findley Nickerson, the youngest of three brothers, was born in 1910 in central Nebraska, where his father was superintendent of schools. An accomplished pianist, he taught science, math and music in Nebraska schools after graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan College in Lincoln.

After receiving master's and doctoral degrees, he taught music in high school and college. His wife, Juanita, died in 2007. In addition to his daughter Ann Lueck, he is survived by another daughter, Maria Nickerson of Washington state.

A memorial service will be held on the Mankato campus later this month.

For the Star Tribune story, go to

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