In 1981, J.D. Thorne, a lawyer at ELM Law and former University of Wisconsin-Madison baseball player, met with a client at Turner Hall in downtown Milwaukee.
As Thorne was walking out the door, he heard a group of 20 gentlemen talking Badger football. He went to the host asking who they were, and the host told him it was the Milwaukee W Club, a group of letter winners from the UW-Madison. Thorne told the host he was a letter winner in 1968, and he should also be in that room.
The next Monday, Thorne joined the group and became part of the exclusive club. It was there that Thorne first met Albert “Ab” Nicholas, who was an All-American and two-time All-Big Ten Wisconsin basketball player, money manager at the Nicholas Company, big time UW-Madison booster, and generous philanthropist.
Thorne, who played on the same Mt. Prospect (IL) High School baseball team as former big-league slugger Dave Kingman, remained friends with Nicholas for 35 years before Nicholas’s passing earlier this month.
Nicholas’s life has been celebrated this month within the UW-Madison community, especially the athletic department. Ab, along with his wife Nancy Johnson Nicholas, donated $10 million toward the Kohl Center, $8 million to the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology (it’s named after Nancy), and, most recently, a $50 million donation to UW-Madison to be matched by other donors. In 2009, he was inducted in the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
Nicholas’s generous donations and honors tell one story, but many unheard narratives show his dedication to the university.
As a member of the UW Board of Regents, a governing board of 18 members with duties such as approving all contracts within the athletic department, Nicholas was significant in UW-Madison’s development as an athletic powerhouse. Thorne recalled that Nicholas helped develop the balance between academia and athletic prowess at UW-Madison.
“Ab knew that we had to really embrace the idea that the athletics was part of the initiative of the university’s history,” Thorne said. “You can be both an academic institution and an athletic institution. And that’s what Ab saw. It can play a huge part in our branding.”
Nicholas helped lead the way for the hire of UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala from 1988 to 1993, according to Thorne. Shalala, who had experience with this academic-athletic balance at Syracuse, made one of the most important hires in the world of sports in the 1990’s. Along with Nicholas and the Board of Regents’ guidance, Shalala hired Barry Alvarez in 1990 as head football coach.
In 1996, Nicholas told the National W Club that in four years the Wisconsin men’s basketball team would be in the Final Four with the hiring of Dick Bennett, which of course Nicholas had a hand in. Sure enough, in 2000, the Badgers made it to their second Final Four ever and first since 1941.
Nicholas had significant say in the next men’s basketball coach at UW-Madison as well. In 1999, Nicholas told UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Nancy Zimpter to hire Bo Ryan as head men’s basketball coach. When Bennett retired in 2000 and after Brad Soderberg was not retained, Ryan got the job at UW-Madison with Nicholas’s backing, according to Thorne. At Nicholas’s funeral last Friday, Ryan gave a speech honoring the man who became a father figure to him.
As time went on, Nicholas stayed close to the athletic department, especially the men’s basketball team. Many former players tweeted out their thoughts about Nicholas’s passing earlier this month, including how compassionate, dedicated, and generous Nicholas always was around them.
One last big project, however, never came to fruition for Nicholas.
In July of 2008, Thorne and Nicholas saw each other on the street in downtown Milwaukee. They found out they were fraternity brothers at the Sigma Chi fraternity, but another topic of conversation came about.
“Do you think you can help restore baseball?” Nicholas asked Thorne. UW-Madison had been without a baseball team since 1991, when it was cut for financial reasons and Title IX issues.
“Absolutely,” Thorne responded.
Within a week, on July 8, 2008, the Committee to Restore Intercollegiate Baseball to UW-Madison (C.R.I.B.) met at Perkins Restaurant (yes, a Perkins) in Delafield, a halfway point between those attending from Madison and Milwaukee. In attendance were Thorne, Nicholas, long-time president of the Madison Baseball Dugout Club Ron Krohn, former UW baseball player and captain Tom Bennett, then-treasurer of the Dugout Club Dick Anderson, and Sherman Plaza owner Dave Bruns.
Nicholas, who was friends with big-time Wisconsin leaders such as Sheldon Lubar, Bud Selig, and Herb Kohl, reached out to many of his connections to help look into the possibilities of bringing an intercollegiate baseball team back to UW-Madison. As research and discussions went along, Nicholas, Thorne, and company concluded that an endowment would have to be started and about $50 million would need to be raised.
Alvarez was told the money could be raised in 2013, but he did not pursue the endowment. It can still be if asked for, according to Thorne, but Alvarez has not inquired about it.
“As much as I and others in the department love baseball,” Alvarez wrote in a letter to Thorne, “we really cannot take a look at a development drive for it as an intercollegiate sport here at Wisconsin. And, frankly, I don’t foresee such a possibility during my tenure here.”
“Barry said that any money you would raise for baseball would be in competition with the athletic department because it would be from our current donors,” Thorne explained. “All of the money is there, though.”
Bringing back baseball is just not in the current plans, for various reasons, whether one agrees with them or not. Strategy, goals, and initiatives of course change when somebody new leads the charge.
“Last time I talked to Ab about it,” Thorne said, “he said we have to wait until Barry retires. But he said the last thing he wanted to accomplish for UW athletics was to bring back baseball.”
Nicholas did not see the rebirth of UW-Madison intercollegiate baseball team, but his legacy lives on as one of the most influential and generous men in the history of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His desire to give back and commitment to the Wisconsin Idea will always be remembered, and his family and friends will carry on his stories and legacy.
Photo: University of Wisconsin Foundation.