• Doug Neckers

In Recognition – Norm Nitschke

Norm Nitschke, who died just before his 101st birthday, graced our community for nearly a century with good humor, integrity, ability and curiosity. An engineer and inventor Norm made significant contributions to what became ‘safety glass’ in automobiles at Permaglass, the first business he and Harold McMaster started. When they next started Glasstech Inc., which made roller hearth glass tempering and bending machines, Harold told me they thought if they sold ‘just five glass machines’ they’d have a business. When they eventually sold Glasstech Norm told me with great pride, “and we made 17 or so new millionaires selling it.”

Norm was an exceptional businessman. He and Mr. McMaster were partners with different, mutually supporting skills. When Harold and Helen McMaster funded the chemistry teacher at Defiance College some years back, I wrote Harold a note on behalf of all chemists thanking him for his generosity. That was one of the best things I could have done. Soon, Harold was asking if he could help support Bowling Green State University’s coming new Physical Sciences Laboratory building.

Eventually, his generosity bought BG a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer (think MRI) that led to hundreds of groundbreaking research publications from our soon-to-be-started Center for Photochemical Sciences.

Both Norm and Harold were soon making contributions to student programs in the photochemical sciences. Helped by an extremely able investor in the university development office, these funds were turned into government bonds paying 10.25% a year for 25 years. At one point before I retired in 2009 the earnings from the funds given by the two of them had funded more than 70 Ph. D. student years in the program that we had invented -- a Ph. D. in the photochemical sciences. These McMaster Fellows now lead businesses in digital imaging and related areas of photosciences all over the country. A distinguished member of the National Academy of Sciences, George S. Hammond, spent 13 years as a McMaster Fellow at BG too. We nominated Professor Hammond for the National Medal of Science, which he was awarded in 1994.

Norm, who grew up in Toledo, was a benefactor of scientific promise and an all-American who never bought a car not made in the United States. He was honest to a fault.

One year the Center for Photochemical Sciences advisory board was meeting on BG’s campus. When I discovered that Norm was generously given a spot on the other side of Transylvania by BG’s parking services, I showed him a parking spot for him near the meeting. Naturally, the parking attendants gave the distinguished visitor a ticket. Embarrassed, I said, “please give it to me -- I’ll take care of it.” He wouldn’t do it – and just paid it. That was the way he was.

Norm transferred to the University of Michigan from the University of Toledo where he earned bachelor’s degrees in both electrical engineering and engineering physics. At Michigan he did undergraduate research with a physicist who was studying the structure of penicillin with a then new infrared spectroscopy. That drug, which saved thousands of GIs in the last year of the war, was virtually unknown when his work started.

Still Norm was loyal to where he began. A few days after he’d made the gift that became Nitschke Hall at UT, he told me over lunch in his low-key way,his gift was in shares of a stock in a local company. He liked the stock so much he bought the same number of shares he had given back in the afternoon. He was exceedingly generous, wealthy and clever. Proud in a way, but always decent.

One event the two of us looked forward to every 2 years were those supporting Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. These were always held by the Democrats on election eve; neither Norm nor I lived in Marcy’s district so we couldn’t vote for her if we wanted to! But Norm was at the pre-election party because, well, he was invited. I was there to enjoy Norm. He complained, always, that Marcy’s events had only free crackers, cheese and a little bit of salami – after all, these were the Democrats. He’d go on complaining to me the whole time that there were always too few seats for too many “freeloaders.” His sense of humor was a joy.

When I got into the business world, Norm always kept telling me. “Neckers, it’s a lot easier to make a business by buying low and selling high than to do contract work for others. “ I knew he was right – and he proved it. But as he would eventually admit too, it didn’t happen overnight. Starting businesses in technical fields is hard.

Norm Nitschke was kind, clever, quiet and just tough enough to be a tremendous businessman. All the organizations that benefitted from his generosity will miss his good humor and kindness. He personified the local development of technical excellence through his actions, his investments and much of his philanthropy.

We’ll miss him.

Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMaster Distinguished Professor emeritus and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. Follow him on 3dscienceblog.com

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