Icelandic President Visits His Father’s Spartan Stomping Grounds

by | May 18, 2022 | Leadership

SJSU Interim President Steve Perez (left) introduces Icelandic President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson to San José State, where the visiting president’s father attended in the 1960s. Photo by Robert C. Bain.

When Icelandic President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson was planning a delegation to the United States this spring, he knew he had to visit San José State University. 

 “My father studied here in the 1960s, and what I do know from his letters home is that he worked hard,” said President Jóhannesson while touring Yoshihiro Uchida Hall, the site where his father Johannes Saemundsson, ’65 Physical Education, likely attended classes. “He and my mom later told me, if you want to get an education, we’re going to support you. Very soon I will be in that position with my children.”

 Though the Icelandic delegation’s primary goal in visiting Silicon Valley was to connect with tech giants Apple and Meta as part of their campaign to incorporate the Icelandic language into technology platforms, the president’s trip to San José State served as his personal pilgrimage. San José State had long captured the president’s imagination, especially after the death of his father. 

 Jóhannesson remarked on how meaningful it was to retrace his father’s footsteps. He shared that the population of Iceland was approximately one third of the size of San José — about 360,000 people — which is why it is so important to keep the Icelandic language alive in technology, in social media and in the hearts and minds of its international partners.

SJSU Interim President Steve Perez presented Jóhannesson with a Spartan vest, pen and pencil set with the Tower logo, and prints of his father from the 1965 SJSU yearbook. Jóhannesson, in turn, gave Perez a copy of his book, The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations: The History of Iceland.”

 Perez then accompanied Jóhannesson on a tour of the Spartan Complex and Yoshihiro Uchida Hall. Present and former Kinesiology Department Chairs Tamar Semerjian and Shirley Reekie, respectively, walked both presidents through the exercise physiology laboratory, the Spartan Gym and the judo practice room. Semerjian explained the significance of Uchida Hall, which was used as a detention center for Japanese Americans awaiting internment during World War II, and shared how important the site remains for the university, the city and the community at large.

 “We were honored to welcome Icelandic President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson,” said Perez. “We had a great tour of SJSU, thanks to student guide Chris Core, and Professors Semerjian and Reekie. It was fantastic having the head of a nation here on our tremendous campus. We had a great time talking about the president’s love for sports, his father, and how this special place was part of his life.

 “We are a small nation,” said Jóhannesson. “But we like to think we can turn our smallness into strength, just like in sports. I truly appreciate the time you took to show me around.”