Campus officials pay tribute to Ab Nicholas

August 5, 2016 By Greg Bump

University of Wisconsin–Madison alumnus Ab Nicholas, a standout player on the Badger basketball team, former UW System Board of Regents member and dedicated supporter of the university, passed away Thursday morning. He was 85.

Photo: Ab Nicholas

Ab Nicholas was a standout on the Badger basketball team during his student days at UW–Madison. Photo: Paul L. Newby II

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of Ab Nicholas,” UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank says. “He was among the most generous and thoughtful people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting as chancellor at UW–Madison.

“Ab and his wife, Nancy, have been loyal friends of the university, its programs, and our students for many, many years. The Nicholas family has a history that goes back five generations at UW, to the earliest days of the campus. Ab’s legacy will be part of this campus for decades to come. My thoughts are with Nancy and all of the Nicholas family. We will miss Ab.”

Nicholas earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at UW–Madison in 1952 and, after two years of military service, a master’s in finance and investment in 1955. He played guard on the Badger basketball team, earning All-Conference honors in 1951-52, his junior and senior seasons. He was named a second-team All-American as a senior. He was inducted into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.

“I’m just an average guy who got lucky,” Nicholas said in a 2015 profile for the Wisconsin School of Business. “It was a great adventure playing for Wisconsin. As a young person, sports were always important to me.”

Nicholas and his wife, Nancy Johnson Nicholas (BS ’55), gave the university $10 million for construction of the Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion, a practice facility adjoining the Kohl Center.

“Ab was an enormously loyal and generous supporter of not only UW Athletics but the entire university as well. Generations of Wisconsin student-athletes, coaches, staff members and fans have benefited — and will continue to benefit — from his contributions, financial and otherwise, and passion for UW–Madison,” UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez says. “He represented the very best of all we aspire to and he will be dearly missed by the entire Wisconsin family.”

“He was among the most generous and thoughtful people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting as chancellor at UW–Madison.”

Rebecca Blank

Nicholas founded the Nicholas Company, an independent investment firm based in Milwaukee, in 1967, and remained engaged in supporting the university. In addition to serving on the Wisconsin School of Business Dean’s Advisory Board, he was a lead donor during Grainger Hall’s construction, provided funding to establish the Nicholas Center for Corporate Finance and Investment Banking, and is a member of the Wisconsin School of Business Naming Partnership.

“Through his philanthropy and tireless enthusiasm, Ab Nicholas inspired the cornerstones of our school’s strategy and helped make our vision possible,” says François Ortalo-Magné, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business. “I take comfort knowing that business deans at Wisconsin will forever advance Ab’s legacy thanks to his generous endowment of the deanship which carries his name.”

In 2011, the Nicholases provided a lead gift of $8 million to launch the campaign to expand the School of Human Ecology building, which opened in 2012 as Nancy Nicholas Hall. Last fall, the Nicholases announced they would match $50 million in donations creating endowed scholarship and fellowship funds — a gift that has inspired many others to support UW students.

“My whole purpose is to give others a chance like I was given a chance,” Nicholas said in the business school profile. “I’ve done everything in my power to help others go to a great school and participate in all the activities I did that have helped me move ahead in life.”

“My whole purpose is to give others a chance like I was given a chance.”

Ab Nicholas

In 2013, Nicholas established a new foundation with a $50 million endowment to provide scholarships for selected high school basketball players to attend a University of Wisconsin System school.

Nicholas served a term as a regent of the University of Wisconsin System and was president of UW–Madison’s National W Club, which supports the university’s program of intercollegiate athletics. He was named a Wisconsin Distinguished Business Alumnus in 1985 and received the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumnus award in 1993.

“I am deeply pained by the loss of Ab Nicholas. He was a dear friend and advisor to many and his generosity will continue to impact the lives of countless students at UW–Madison and throughout the state in perpetuity,” says Mike Knetter, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. “Ab’s passion for family, education, basketball, teamwork and competition were intertwined and together embodied the elements that helped him create the platform for his life and career. His legacy will live on through his family and through the lives of the many people they’ve touched. Our sincere condolences to Nancy and the Nicholas family.”