Harold Nielsen had been struggling in recent months with a chronic respiratory difficulty and this morning passed away from its relentless grip. He was 96. The world now has lost one of its most remarkable people.
Harold Nielsen’s name will not be recognized by most people. That is precisely the way he wanted his life and work to be: anonymous and without fanfare. He wanted his work to speak for itself in terms of what he believed and the humanitarian perspectives that came to define his life. But Harold’s character, manner and demeanor gave definition to the notion of servant leader long before the term entered the modern lexicon; his work and perspectives literally changed the lives of those who knew him, and the lives of so many who did not.
Harold had the capacity to see and to feel what so many of us do not. He truly ached for the people of Nicaragua and other poverty-riddled places of the world, outraged at the circumstances which gave rise to such conditions, and filled with a desperate empathy to help in every way that he could. Quiet tears often communicated the depth of that intense compassion. Yet he brought an analytical eye to every opportunity, always seeking the maximum benefit that could be achieved, examining each project request with an entrepreneur’s outlook, sometimes increasing requested amounts when he could foresee the need and opportunity even more clearly than the requester. He demonstrated the courage to take risk for such underprivileged, and spent his personal resources to do it. Thousands of Nicaraguans have been given a hand up by Harold through Winds of Peace. It was never enough, but he knew that planting seeds was only the start of any harvest.
Harold’s legacy will be felt far into the future, within the remote corners of rural Nicaragua, the Indigenous communities, the neglected places where women still seek a voice in their lives, and wherever schools work to educate the young. These were the populations Harold and Louise Nielsen came to regard as the most underserved. And service was Harold’s strength in everything he did. He will be remembered as one of the most selfless people most of us will have ever met.
Harold was a life-long learner and teacher. He was curious about everything and everybody, and therein lay his ability to put people and concepts together in new endeavors. Such inquisitiveness also fed his transformation in life from that of a committed capitalist to becoming a fiery philanthropist and voice for the poor; he came to understand the cause-and-effect between North American prosperity and Developing World poverty. His fervent hope for those of us associated with him was that we might come to such an awakening far earlier in life than he had. As such, Harold was a visionary and a mentor unlike anyone most of us have ever known, asking the uncomfortable questions, demonstrating an uncompromising love for the underprivileged, quietly challenging conventional perspective, and always with an air of genuine humility that allowed colleagues to maintain their own sense of worth, even when they did not agree with him.
The true read of Harold Nielsen is beyond any ability to capture in this forum. Rather, talk to those whose lives he touched: the Vietnamese refugees who Harold and Louise housed at their home and supported through college; the scores of everyday people given an opportunity to travel into Developing World sites to experience a far different reality from the U.S.; Nicaraguans who were assisted in order to grow a crop or attend a school or discover their own opportunities and influence; employee-owners of Foldcraft Co. who were afforded the opportunity to own the place where they worked; abandoned Mexican children who found refuge and hope at Miracle Ranch Children’s Home in Las Palmas, Mexico; or even the patrons and beneficiaries of All Seasons Community Services thrift stores and food shelves. But be prepared, for the chances are great that these folks won’t even recognize the name of Harold Nielsen, only the results of his humanity.
Upon hearing of Harold’s passing, Rene Mendoza, our colleague in Nicaragua, sent the following remembrance which seems relevant to our loss: “I remember some years ago, when a friend of ours died in the ocean saving two friends, Fr. Gorostiaga said in the celebration of the mass, ‘we are not going to pray for our friend, because he was a saint, someone so generous even up to his last moments; we are going to pray for those of us who are left behind…. From Nicaragua, in the name of so many indigenous families and cooperative members, and boys and girls who benefitted from the generosity of Harold, we send a big hug.'”
Indeed, we are poorer at Harold’s passing, but so much richer for his life….