JOHN D. NICHOLS JR.
By Thomas Connors
By Thomas Connors
A businessman par excellence, committed philanthropist, and thoroughly engaged citizen, John D. Nichols Jr. was a man who not only embraced every opportunity but did his best to create opportunity for others. When he died on June 14 at age 92, Chicago lost an individual who was always there for his city. “For me, John was the exemplar of a business and civic leader,” shares Bobby Mehta, Former CEO and President of TransUnion. “He set the bar for many of us. He was also a compassionate individual who helped people advance in their careers and build a better life. I considered him a mentor and a friend. He will be sorely missed.”
The Art Institute of Chicago, WTTW, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Music Institute of Chicago, Lyric Opera, and the University of Chicago are just a few of the many cultural and civic institutions Nichols and his wife, Alexandra, generously supported. “John’s dedication to the Art Institute, as a trustee and board chair, was remarkable,” says the museum’s President and Eloise W. Martin Director, James Rondeau. “The Nichols Bridgeway linking the Art Institute with Millennium Park is a true manifestation of the connections he built across the city through his civic and business leadership.”
Although his name became synonymous with the best Chicago has to offer, Nichols began life far from the Windy City. He was born in Shanghai, where his father was the Director of the International Red Cross for China, India, and Burma. Nichols grew up in New Jersey and Connecticut and attended Harvard, where he earned both his B.A. and MBA before serving as an officer in the U.S. Army Finance Corps from 1955 to 1958. He began his career as the Director of Financial Controls for International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. He held several positions with Ford Motor Company, including Program Director for the construction and operation of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, and in 1980 relocated to Chicago to serve first as Executive Vice President and then as President and CEO of Illinois Tool Works (ITW).
Nichols and Alexandra—whom he’d married in 1971—settled into a house in Winnetka, along with their two children. Already a highly-respected businessman, Nichols’s profile grew with invitations to join a number of corporate boards, including those of Hyatt Hotels, Philip Morris International, Rockwell International, Kraft Incorporated, and TransUnion. “John was a teacher to all who knew him,” says Thomas Pritzker, CEO of the Pritzker Organization and executive chairman of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation. “He taught by asking questions. He stood out as an intellect, a businessman, and a friend.”
Nichols, described in a Metals Service Center Institute article as “a modest man who prefers to let his actions do the talking,” led Illinois Tool Works (ITW) until 1996. “As a business leader, what was unique about John was his belief in keeping things simple and pushing decision-making as close to the customer as possible,” remarks Scott Santi, the company’s current Chairman and CEO. “Some 40 years later, simplicity and trust remain firmly embedded as defining elements of what ITW is as a company and are key drivers of our ability to consistently deliver industry-leading performance.” Santi continues, “As civic leaders, John and Alexandra set an incredible example through their active and transformative involvement with so many vital organizations in Chicago. While they were incredibly generous financially, what has really made an impression on my wife, Nancy, and me and what we try to emulate as best we can is how deeply they engaged in terms of the amount of personal time and effort they devoted to helping the organizations they support.”
In 2002, Nichols became President and CEO of the Pritzker-owned Marmon Group, a globe-spanning entity comprised of hundreds of manufacturing and business services operations. But no matter what the demands of his work, Nichols was indefatigable in his philanthropic efforts. And it wasn’t just the city’s cultural crown jewels that enjoyed his support.
Thomas Vanden Berk, former leader of UCAN—an organization in North Lawndale supporting youth who have suffered trauma and enabling them to become our future leaders—met Nichols 15 years ago. At the time Nichols was president of Homan Square Foundation, which was responsible for nearly 350 affordable housing units in the city’s North Lawndale neighborhood, along with a charter school, Power House High, and the Nichols Tower, a hub of community empowerment situated in the old Sears headquarters. “What struck me about John was not just the millions of his own dollars spent on the project and the money he raised—over $40 million—but that he took the time to meet with families and troubled youth. John had an incredible ‘quiet compassion’ for the people of North Lawndale. He listened to them and addressed their needs. He played such a critical role in helping build that community, yet never sought recognition.”
For all his business savvy and charitable prowess, what many will remember of the man are the attributes that defined this husband, father, and friend. Fiercely intelligent with a sharp sense of humor, Nichols was a talented tennis player and a fine skier. An art lover, he was a passionate collector of Han Dynasty tomb figures, Modern and Impressionist art and sculpture, and the prints of Edgar Chahine, an Austrian-born artist of Armenian descent. Nichols was a Renaissance man in the deepest sense, who enhanced the lives of those fortunate enough to know him and whose philanthropic efforts will impact the generations to come.