Ben Nichols

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Ben Nichols

Ben Nichols, a professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering and former mayor of Ithaca, died Nov. 24 2007, of complications of lymphoma and leukemia. He was 87.

In addition to his wife, Judith Van Allen, he is survived by two children by his first wife, Ethel.[1]

Ben and Ethel Baron were married in New York City on September 10, 1942. Ethel died nearly 49 years later in Ithaca on July 20, 1991. Ben Nichol married Judith Van Allen in Ithaca on September 20, 1995.


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.[2]


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.[3]


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. [4]

Ithaca DSA

Ithaca Socialist Nov. 1985, page 1

In 1985, Ben Nichols was chairman of the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America.

Ithaca mayoralty run

In 1989 Ben Nichols, a long-time DSA member and past chair of the Ithaca DSA local, won a close contest for mayor by 202 votes. He won 2,630 votes to the 2,428 of his Republican opponent, Jean Cookingham. Nichols blamed the narrowness of his win on red-baiting and strong media opposition.

Irene Stein, chair of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, said Nichols' stand on crime and affordable housing pushed voters to support him at the polls. Others suggested that his pro-choice position, as contrasted with his opponent's anti-abortion views, was a determining factor in his victory

Nichols, a retired Cornell University engineering professor, had lived in Ithaca since 1973. He was backed heavily by Ithaca trade unions, minority groups,Cornell faculty and students, environmentalists,and peace advocates. The Ithaca DSA local, which was heavily involved in his campaign, organized fundraisers, participated in phonebanks, and distributed literature for Nichols.

"He's a walking history of progressive movements in this century," said Al Davidoff, president of a local of the United Automobile Workers and Ben Nichols' campaign coordinator.

Nichols helped his parents organize a union, supported Spanish loyalists, protested racial segregation in the South,marched against the Vietnam War, and backed Jesse Jackson for president.[5]

Rainbow affiliate

Rainbow Coalition affiliated mayors who won in 1989 included Ben Nichols (Ithaca) David Dinkins (New York), Coleman Young (Detroit), Norm Rice (Seattle) and John Daniels ( New Haven}.[6]

Mayor of Ithaca

In 1991 Ben Nichols was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and was mayor of Ithaca, New York.[7]

In 1995 DSAer Ben Nichols was running for re-election as Ithaca mayor.[8]

DSA Youth conference

Columbia Daily Spectator November 12 1992

Ben Nichols was a guest speaker at the Democratic Socialists of America Youth Section 1992 conference.

DSA member

Ben Nichols is a former Mayor of Ithaca, New York. In 2003 he was amember[9] of Democratic Socialists of America and a chair of the Working Families Party in the 125th Assembly District.


By 2003, many New York DSA members had registered in the Working Families Party, including former Ithaca Mayor Ben Nichols, who chaired the WFP in the 125th Assembly District.[10]

Bernie Sanders fundraiser

During the summer and fall of 2006 Democratic Socialists of America Political Action Committee helped DSA activists around the country, “from San Diego up to Maine” to host house parties to raise funds that helped Bernie Sanders become the sole Socialist in the U.S. Senate.

In Ithaca Over 30activists came together July 30 at the lakeside home of former mayor Ben Nichols and Judith Van Allen. In "addition to enjoying good food and wine, good company, and a chance to watch a video of Sanders, some of us took a dip in Cayuga Lake. The gathering brought together DSA members, Progressive Democrats of America members, left Democrats and media activists. [11]