Ben Nichols, professor emeritus, former mayor of Ithaca and lifelong activist, dies at 87

Benjamin Nichols, professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering and former mayor of Ithaca, died Nov. 24 of complications of lymphoma and leukemia. He was 87.

Nichols entered Cornell as a freshman in 1937 and after service in World War II received his B.S. in electrical engineering in 1946 and M.S. in 1949. He completed the residence requirements for a Ph.D. at Cornell but received the degree from the University of Alaska in 1956 while there as a research associate. He had already joined the Cornell faculty as assistant professor in 1949, became associate professor in 1953, full professor in 1959 and emeritus in 1988.

He began research on radio wave studies of the ionosphere in 1951 and continued various research projects in that area until 1963, when he discontinued this research because it had military applications and shifted his interest to science education. In 1964-65 he directed the National Science Foundation-sponsored Elementary Science Study in Watertown, Mass., and helped develop a series of materials for more effective elementary school science teaching. In 1972 he returned to full-time teaching in the School of Electrical Engineering. In 1989 he co-authored the textbook "Introductory Linear Electrical Circuits and Electronics," parts of which are still used in Cornell classes.

Nichols served as director of the Division of Basic Studies, with the title of associate dean, in the School of Electrical Engineering (now Electrical and Computer Engineering). He was a member of the university's faculty council, chair of the Committee on the Economic Status of the Faculty, and speaker of the University Senate. He was deeply involved in the development of the black studies program and other areas of student activism, and championed the social justice vision of the university. He served as the president of the Cornell chapter of the American Association of University Professors during the Willard Straight Hall takeover crisis.

Nichols served as mayor of Ithaca for three terms from 1989 to 1995. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, he put Ithaca on the map as a city with a socialist mayor. As mayor, he persuaded Cornell to make a much larger financial contribution to the city in lieu of taxes, and passed a domestic partnership ordinance granting equal benefits to gay and heterosexual couples that has been credited with inspiring similar polices at Cornell, Ithaca College and several local businesses.

After retiring, Nichols worked with the Cornell Institute for African Development, and he remained politically active for the remainder of his life, including recently receiving a citation while protesting the clearing of Redbud Woods.

In addition to his wife, Judith Van Allen, he is survived by a brother, two children by his first wife, Ethel, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

"All his children and grandchildren," Van Allen said, "are in one way or another engaged in attempts to make the world a better place that their father was committed to and that they learned from their father."

Noting that Nichols had long been concerned about a lack of diversity in the Ithaca City School District faculty, Van Allen said a fund will be created in his memory to provide scholarships for education paraprofessionals of color with roots in the community to train to become fully certified teachers and return to teach in the district. Contributions can be sent to 1667 Taughannock Blvd., Trumansburg, NY 14886.

A family service was held Nov. 26, and a community celebration of Nichols' life and work is planned for sometime in December.

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Blaine Friedlander