Tribute to Dr. John Nikol (1945-2022)
by Natalie Lui Duncan '93
It has been a year since we lost Dr. John Nikol—one of the finest teachers who taught those of us who graduated from Stuyvesant High School in the 1990s and an intellectual giant. He was such an exceptional teacher that 30 years after my last class with him, I can still remember his specific teaching methods. His impact and legacy endures. Three attributes stand out in particular.
Dr. Nikol inspired us to pursue excellence. He set high expectations of us. He sprang pop quizzes on us. He expected us to stay actively engaged in classroom discussions. His track record of 4s and 5s by his students on the Advanced Placement (AP) European History exam over the years was unmatched. He created a classroom culture where students did not dare slack off or come to class unprepared.
Dr. Nikol challenged us to exercise our critical thinking skills. At the same time, he helped us develop our writing skills. He did not teach us what to think, but rather, how to think for ourselves. He taught us to challenge the underlying assumptions of conclusions. He assigned homework that involved heavy doses of reading and writing. Throughout my career, I have come across poorly crafted memos, presentations, and other written products by colleagues and employees across all ranks, ages, and professional disciplines in government and in private industry. Scores of documents come through me for clearance daily. I am appalled by the atrocious quality of the writing by the vast majority of people, and have come to more fully appreciate a well written product.
Most importantly, Dr. Nikol provided the context for me to make sense of human history and the world around me. In his classroom, I learned about the origins of the Protestant Reformation – the forces that precipitated it, the Thirty Years’ War that ensued, and the Counter Reformation. Three decades later, even my Dad-a retired Presbyterian Minister-expressed amazement that he did not learn what I learned in high school until he was pursuing his Doctorate Degree in Ministry in his early forties. Dr. Nikol introduced us to the Hapsburg Empire, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Machiavelli, Napoleon, and Louis the XIV. His teachings made my travels to Austria, Italy, and France come alive. Through him, we learned about the rise and fall of civilizations through the centuries and the patterns that recurred throughout history.
As a scholar with exceptional academic credentials, Dr. Nikol could have easily landed a job as a professor at a prestigious college or university. I feel incredibly fortunate that someone of his intellect chose to teach us high schoolers at Stuyvesant.
In her eulogy, Dr. Nikol’s daughter, Elizabeth, characterized her beloved Father as someone who “gave his all to his students.” Her observation was spot-on. Dr. Nikol worked diligently to prepare us for the AP Exams and went way beyond “teaching to the test” to ensure that we gleaned key learnings about the key inflection points in European history that, in turn, shaped world history.
While the vast majority of my classmates earned 4s and 5s on the AP European History exam, I was one of the few outliers who earned a 3. My immediate reaction was a sense of shame and embarrassment- that I had disappointed Dr. Nikol and marred his near perfect track record. I am convinced that the test result was a reflection of my own poor test taking abilities and could not be attributed to how well he prepared us. Although it must have been a disappointment to him, he never let it show or impact the way he treated me. When I approached him for college recommendations, he said “Yes,” followed through, and took the time to share with the college admissions offices his assessment of me in writing. It was not until four years later when I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from Stanford that I felt a sense of redemption and that I finally made him proud.
The last time I saw Dr. Nikol was at a special Naturalization Ceremony held at the Stuyvesant Murray Kahn Theater to which I invited him in 2008 after he had retired. At the time, I served as the Senior Advisor to the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. I came up with the idea of hosting a ceremony at Stuy given the vital role it has played in paving the way for poor immigrant children to realize the American Dream and orchestrated the ceremony. I invited the three teachers who had the greatest impact on me – Dr. Nikol, Dr. Pam Shelden, and Mr. Jim Lonardo — to attend and witness American history in the making as several hundred immigrants took the Oath of Citizenship. In the hustle and bustle, I only had an opportunity to chat with Dr. Nikol for a few moments. I had invited him to join us at the Principal’s office for a VIP reception with senior government officials who were in attendance. To my regret, he departed immediately after the ceremony and I did not have a chance to say goodbye to him. His disappearance was consistent with how I remembered him. He did not seek the limelight, he kept a low profile, and he focused on his core mission of educating his students.
When I learned about the loss of Dr. Nikol in the December 2022 edition of the SHSAA alumni newsletter, it unleashed a flood of emotions in me. Above all, it reminded me of the first-rate education that I was privileged to receive at Stuyvesant and for which I am eternally grateful. Dr. Nikol was Stuyvesant’s crown jewel and he embodied the attributes of a world-class teacher.
Please consider paying tribute to Dr. Nikol by making a donation to the Scholarship Fund established in his honor by his family to keep his legacy alive. It is their hope that The Dr. John Nikol Award for Excellence in Social Studies will go to a graduating senior who will be able to utilize the funds in pursuit of post-secondary educational opportunities in the area of Education or History.
-Natalie Lui Duncan ’93