Distinguished Couple

October 1, 2007
Twice as nice: The Nicholases are honored members of the Duke community

Twice as nice: The Nicholases are honored members of the Duke community. Duke University Photography

Pete and Ginny Nicholas have been familiar to generations of those with strong Duke ties. And they've left a mark that is certain to endure for generations. So it is fitting that the Boston-based couple has been chosen to receive the 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award, to be presented during Founders' Day ceremonies on September 27.

Established in 1983 by the Duke Alumni Association, the award is given to alumni who have made significant contributions in their own fields, in service to the university, or for the betterment of humanity. The Nicholases were selected from nominations made by Duke alumni, faculty members, trustees, administrators, and students.

Ruth Virginia "Ginny" Lilly Nicholas '64 was an English major at Duke and participated in a range of activities, from the campus service organization White Duchy to the YWCA. Since graduation, she has volunteered as an admissions adviser, chair of the executive committee of the Duke Annual Fund, and reunion class chair. In addition to serving many Boston-area charitable organizations, she is the founder and president of Open Market of Concord, Massachusetts. Open Market is affiliated with Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting craftspeople around the world.

As a Duke undergraduate, Peter M. Nicholas '64 majored in economics and was business manager of the Chanticleer. He built on that business interest and went on to earn an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. In 1979 he co-founded Boston Scientific Corp.; he remains the company's chair. With some 29,000 employees, Boston Scientific is a leader in the less-invasive medical-device industry. Its products help physicians and other medical professionals improve their patients' quality of life by providing alternatives to surgery. The company operates manufacturing, distributing, and technology centers worldwide, delivers more than 15,000 products in more than forty-five countries, and has grown in revenues from about $2 million in 1979 to more than $7.8 billion in 2006.

Pete Nicholas has served Duke in a variety of capacities, including as trustee from 1993 to 2005; he was chair of the board during his last two years as trustee. He has also been a charter member and chair of the board of visitors for the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, a reunion class chair, and a member of the board of the Duke University Health System.

Pete and Ginny Nicholas were co-chairs of the Campaign for Duke, which ran from 1996 through 2003. The campaign provided support for the faculty, student financial aid, academic programs, research, improvements to campus and community life, and a variety of other areas. It raised $2.36 billion—at the time, one of the five largest fundraising efforts in the history of higher education.

Early in the campaign, the couple gave $20 million to Duke for what would become the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, helping to lay the foundation for the school to play a more prominent role in environmental research and policymaking. They followed that up with a number of other gifts, including the Nicholas Faculty Leadership Initiative in 2002. The last gift counted in the campaign was a record-breaking $72 million from the Nicholases—$2 million for Perkins Library and $70 million earmarked for the Nicholas School. At the time, Pete Nicholas said the gift was intended to enable the school to "greatly expand its reach and influence in undertaking critical research, training future leaders, and informing the debate about issues that range from global warming to the quality of our air and water." The gift remains the single-largest from an individual or couple in Duke's history.

During the campaign, the couple also supported programs at Fuqua, Trinity College, Duke Divinity School, and Duke Medical Center, as well as intercollegiate athletics.

The Nicholas legacy at Duke continues in other ways. The Nicholases are the parents of three Duke alumni: J.K. Nicholas '89, M.B.A. '96; Peter M. Nicholas Jr. '92, M.B.A. '98; and Katherine Nicholas Curtis '94. J.K. Nicholas, who is married to Virginia Shannon '88, serves on the board of visitors of the Nicholas School; Peter Nicholas Jr. is a member of the Fuqua School of Business' board of visitors.

With the Nicholas Faculty Leadership Initiative, the entire Nicholas Family advanced a key campaign goal by providing for an array of endowed professorships. The $25 million gift matched 50 percent of the gifts from others for faculty support, to yield a total of $75 million. "The center of our Duke experience was in the classroom—where great teachers literally changed our lives," said Ginny Nicholas in announcing the initiative.

Speaking for the faculty, Peter Burian, chair of the Academic Council at the time and professor of classical and comparative literatures, offered a memorable tribute: "Etymologically, ‘philanthropy' is the love of humanity. The kind of generosity we are here to celebrate is more than a gift of money; it is a gift of love. Our donors are philanthropoi, lovers of their fellow human beings, but even more to the point, Peter and Ginny Nicholas belong to the smaller and more select class of what we might call philodidaskaloi, lovers of faculty, and I think I speak for the faculty in saying that we love you back."