Nils Frederiksen was the business manager of Camp Robinson Crusoe, where I spent many happy summers. To the left is a picture of Nils with his daughter Ditte in the camp shop. Ditte provided the pictures in this Entry.
Born in Denmark, Nils spoke with a Danish accent. One of the campers in my group, Peter Klein, used to mimic his accent, answering the camp telephone with, "Ya, dees iss Nilss". This backfired on one occasion, when a momentarily confused voice at the other end of the line insisted, "No, no, DEES iss Nilss!"
I knew Nils only slightly from my camp experience, because much of his work was behind the scenes. But when he left the camp around 1963 or 1964, he came to MIT to get a second Masters degree, in city planning (he already had a Masters of Business Administration). I was a student at MIT at the time, and Nils came to me for help because he was having trouble in his calculus course. I did a few tutoring sessions, largely helping him with a lot of unfamiliar mathematical notation. He told me the following story:
As an older student, he was put into a course which was basically "Calculus for people who have forgotten their calculus" (not the actual title). The earnest graduate student instructor plowed enthusiastically into the subject matter, stopping every now and then to ask if anyone in his audience of older men had any questions, but nobody did.
Well into the second week, somebody finally asked a question: "What's that on the board, up there near your right hand?"
The instructor replied, "Oh, that's an alpha" (he erased the α, and re-wrote it more neatly).
The student persisted, "What's an alpha?"
Instructor: "Well, you'll recall, in this example, we defined alpha as the acceleration, the second derivative with respect to time t of the position x."
Student: "What I mean is, what's an alpha?"
Instructor: "What do you mean?" (Offhandedly): "It's a Greek letter, of course."
Instructor: "How many of you didn't know that alpha is a Greek letter?" (Most of the hands went up.) "How many of you haven't understood a thing we've been doing for the past week and a half?" (All the hands went up. The students had been too embarrassed to say anything, each thinking he was the only one who didn't understand.)
They started over. Nils ultimately finished his degree, and became city planner in Connecticut, living in Westport. He later was campus planner and instructor at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut.
Nils had first become involved with the camp when he married Nancy Lieberman, the daughter of Josh Lieberman, the camp's founder and director. Nancy is shown to the left in 1942, helping to erect a camp building. Nils and Nancy were married in Denmark, and lived there in 1949 and 1950. Nancy once told me about her difficulties trying to learn Danish. She gave an example of some Danish words whose difference in pronunciation, to an English speaker's ear, was extremely subtle.
She also told me the following story. Shortly after arriving in Denmark, she had an appointment with the doctor she had chosen to be what we would now call her "primary care physician". Of course, on an initial visit, she had to fill out a great deal of paperwork. One of the forms asked for her husband's name, and of course she wrote "Nils Frederiksen".
When she saw the doctor, he noted that the form was lacking information, and he asked for her husband's "full name". She repeated that his name was simply "Nils Frederiksen". The doctor said that in Denmark, "full name" had to include a title. What did her husband do for a living? She answered that he was working as a book publisher, but she didn't know the name for that occupation in Danish. The doctor seemed exasperated. "How can you expect me to enroll you," he said, "when you don't know your husband's name?"
He pulled out a telephone book. The book listed all the telephone subscribers, but it listed them by title! That is, you couldn't look up someone by the name "Frederiksen". The book was alphabetized under "Medical-doctor Frederiksen", "Housepainter Frederiksen", "Engineer Frederiksen", and so on. If you didn't know someone's title, you couldn't look him up.
This could have been related to the fact that Denmark has fewer last names than other countries. In the old system, "Frederiksen" meant "son of Frederik". In that system, a child of "Nils Frederiksen" might be named "Lars Nilssen", and his son might be named "Arvid Larssen", etc. Thus, the titles might have been necessary to distinguish between thousands of people all named "Nils Frederiksen". On the other hand, this system also assumes that people don't readily change occupations, and hence titles. It would never work in the United States, where a person might have five different jobs during the course of his life. I have no idea if Denmark still organizes their phone books the same way.
In any event, Nils and Nancy moved to the United States, and lived most of their lives there.