Remembering Nils Nilsson

Long time Committee for Green Foothills board member and board President in 1973, Nils Nilsson passed away on April 22 in Medford, Oregon.  He was 86.  Nils was a warm, generous, fun-loving person, who was always ready to volunteer his time for the benefit of the environment and the greater community.

Nils and his first wife, Karen (Braucht) Nilsson, moved to Ladera in 1961 and almost immediately became involved in several conservation groups.

As Nils related in his life story, written shortly before he died,  “Karen and I worked with many groups that had a conservation orientation.  One was the Peninsula Conservation Center (PCC), a group founded in 1970 by Claire Dedrick and Janet Adams.  Besides taking advocacy positions on its own, the PCC served as a home for several other conservation groups such as the Loma Prieta Chapter of Sierra Club, and the Committee for Green Foothills.  It was originally housed in an old blue and green house on Oak Grove Avenue in Menlo Park, but eventually moved to other buildings in and around Palo Alto.” (The PCC, now at 3921 East Bayshore in Palo Alto, is the permanent home of Green Foothllls, and several other groups, including the League of Women Voters, thanks to generous donors who funded the purchase of the building.)

“Early in 1971, Karen helped lead a petition drive to form a “Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.”  Unfortunately, the five-member San Mateo County Board of Supervisors decided not to support the inclusion of part of San Mateo County within the proposed district, which did include open space in adjacent Santa Clara County.  Voters within the proposed boundary of the district approved its formation in 1972.”

“A meeting at our house in Ladera kicked off another petition drive, which eventually succeeded in expanding the Open Space District boundaries to include open space in San Mateo County.”  The District has now permanently protected a regional greenbelt system comprising over 60,000 acres of land in 26 open space preserves.

In his professional life, Nils was a computer scientist who helped develop the first general purpose robot in the late 1960’s and was a co-inventor of algorithms that made it possible for the machine (dubbed “Shakey”) to move efficiently and perform simple tasks.   As a member of a small group of computer scientists and electrical engineers at Stanford Research Institute, he pioneered technologies that have proliferated in modern life, whether in navigation software used in more than a billion smartphones or in such speech-control systems as Siri.

Nils was named chair of the Stanford Department of Computer Science in 1985, where his leadership was responsible for a new building dedicated to Computer Science, creation of an undergraduate major in the discipline, and continuing strengths in programs that resulted in the creation of Google, among other successful entrepreneurial efforts.

Some of Nils’ wisdom includes: “Be moderate in all things, except in the pursuit of excellence.”  “You can’t control everything, so don’t try.”  “Take a meta-level view.  Try to rise above the current situation and look down on it.”  “Try to put yourself in the shoes of others.”  “Smile more than frown.”

To see Nils full obituary, please visit:, or

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