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Viggo Nielson
Excelled at
Ornamental Writing


Lincoln Sentinel-Republican, 18 March 1971

The following article concerning a one-time resident of Denmark from the column of Lew Starr recently appeared in the San Diego Union.
For a little while every day, one of the last of America’s great penmen sits at his desk in a tiny study in Ramona and tries desperately to hold on to his dying art.
Viggo E. Nielson at 90 is the last ornamental writer still practicing in the West and one of only a half-dozen in the country.
“It used to be important,” Dr. Nielson said, choosing his words deliberately, “to have a good hand. A young man with a good hand could find employment with any big abstract office because it was before typewriters and everything was recorded by hand and it had to be plain and legible.”
But what Viggo Nielson puts onto paper is more than just plain and legible. Ornamental, or fine-line writing, is a combination of flourishes, shadings and cursive emphasis that lifts penmanship to the level of art.
It is the kind of writing that used to be used to embellish official documents, licenses and diplomas.
In fact, Dr. Nielson has personally hand-designed and ornamentally written every diploma used at the California College of Commerce since he founded the college in Long Beach in 1921.
He was president there until he retired 18 years ago, but he still turns out the diplomas. He estimates he has done more than 40,000.
“Of course, I don’t charge them anything. My hand is as firm as ever, so why shouldn’t I do it if I enjoy it?”
No brag, just fact, but Viggo Nielson, now a widower who lives alone and cooks all of his own meals, feels he is just as good an ornamental writer as he was when he was 21 and was proclaimed one of the best in the United States.
That year he got his diploma as a master penman from the Hauson School of Penmanship in Riverside. For a final exam students had to design their own diplomas.
“They handed us a blank piece of paper,” he said, “and we knew what was coming so we went right to work. They just said, ‘Gentleman, give us a work of art.’
“It took me one month working eight hours a day to finish it. There it is.”
Dr. Nielson’s ornamental writing diploma, framed and looking like a pen and ink illumination, hangs over his busy little desk. He had, indeed, given them a work of art.
Next to it, also framed, on lined yellow paper, is the handwritten legend: “A sample of Oranamental Writing by V.E. Nielson at age 10,” which for a 10-year-old boy is impressive.
Next to it, framed on unlined wihte paper, is another handwritten legend: “A sample of Ornamental Writing by V.E. Nielson, age 89,” which for an 89-year-old man is a triumph.
Every year on or near his birthday, Dr. Nielson updates his art. (He was 90 yesterday.) If he detects the slightest spindery tendency, the least shake or deterioration of form, he will put away his steel tipped pens forever.
“No use pretending you’re good at something if you’re not,” Dr. Nielson said, “But I won’t be trying to fool anybody. I’ll be the first to know.
“I’ll know when my hands begin to shake and they don’t yet.”
He held them up, fingers spread, and they were rocks. Dr. Nielson’s eyes are something else. He concedes that his sight is failing. For extremely fine work he puts on a magnification device that fits over his head as if he were about to enter the frontal lobe of the brain.
“I do my writing a little bit everyday,” he said, “but not too long at a time. He can’t buy good steel-tipped pens any more, but I know I’ve got enough to last the rest of my life so that doesn’t worry me.
“I’m just trying to save what sight I have left so my eyes last as long as my hands.”

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