Changing (many, many, many) Lives

Through an eight-figure endowment to support student scholarships, Gene ’50 and Marilyn Nuziard will provide the gift of an Illinois Wesleyan education to scores of future students.

Story by Matt Wing

 

Learn. Earn. Return.

Gene Nuziard ’50 has used this refrain before. He employed it as the theme for his acceptance speech when he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award at Illinois Wesleyan’s 1997 Homecoming. He used it again when he sat down with IWU President Eric Jensen in September 2018 to discuss a pledge he and his wife Marilyn are making to support student scholarships at Illinois Wesleyan.

“There’s a time for learning, there’s a time for earning, and there’s a time for returning,” Nuziard told Jensen. “I’m giving to Wesleyan scholarship money so they can help other people, like they helped me.”

Jensen announced the Nuziards’ commitment to an eight-figure endowment for student scholarships at Illinois Wesleyan’s annual Scholarship Benefactor Dinner on Oct. 4, 2018.

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Gene ’50 and Marilyn Nuziard have committed to an eight-figure endowment to support student scholarships.

“The endowment that Gene and Marilyn Nuziard are setting up as part of their estate is large enough that huge numbers of students over the years are going to benefit from the Nuziards’
support,” Jensen said. “They’re going to change thousands of lives.”

The son of a working-class family, Gene Nuziard learned more on the streets of the South Side of Chicago than he did in the public school classrooms of his youth. But by combining those street smarts with an Illinois Wesleyan education, Nuziard embarked on a prosperous career in commercial baking with a recipe for success.

And now Nuziard, at age 90 and having crossed “learn” and “earn” off his self-imposed to-do list, has finished the job by putting a big, bold check mark next to the final step through his and Marilyn’s commitment to future Illinois Wesleyan students.

“I never thought much about it. I just did it,” Nuziard said when asked about the gift by Jensen. “I just thought about giving it to Wesleyan to help other students, like Wesleyan helped me. That’s all I thought about.”

•••

Gene Nuziard’s first education came from his father.

Antoine Nuziard was a third-grade educated, first-generation immigrant from France who went to work in central Illinois coal mines at the age of 14 and lied about his age when he joined the
Marines at 16.

Antoine Nuziard was tough. He took a run at amateur boxing in Chicago’s White City when he returned from his military service, but quickly abandoned the career when the expense to treat
a broken thumb was more than he had earned from the boxing match in which he suffered the injury. Antoine Nuziard was also a proud man. When physically threatened by a foreman at the Chicago bakery where he was employed, Nuziard struck first. While others talked, he acted.

Once, when the Nuziards went to eat at a French restaurant without a reservation and were told no tables were available, Antoine Nuziard pulled the matre d’ aside for a conversation in his native Parisian French.

Minutes later, the Nuziards were browsing menus at one of the finest tables in the restaurant.

“He always used to say to me, ‘Son, if you can’t get in the front door, you’ve got to get in the back door,’” Gene Nuziard remembers fondly.

The lessons Antoine Nuziard taught his son have stuck with him to this day.

“He was quite a guy, and that’s how I got in the bakery business,” Gene Nuziard said. “I loved him.”

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Nuziard (left) was presented the Distinguished Alumnus Award by Steve Wannemacher ’73 (right) at Illinois Wesleyan’s 1997 Homecoming.

The schooling he received from his father by far outweighed his early formal education. When Gene Nuziard spent time with his peers attending other schools, he quickly realized they were
learning things he wasn’t.

“Until then, I didn’t realize I wasn’t learning anything,” he said. “When I would play with the kids in the street after school, I would listen to what they were learning, and they were talking way above my head.”

So when he finished high school and the time came to choose a college, he knew he wanted to be at a place where he would learn.

“I needed to select a smaller school so I could get some help,” Nuziard said. “I got personal attention at Wesleyan. I got the help that I needed.”

Active in Theta Chi and inspired by professors like Bill Beadles ’23, Nuziard left Illinois Wesleyan in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. His IWU education served him well during the course of his illustrious career as he climbed the ranks in the commercial baking industry, often surpassing rival executives with Ivy League credentials.

“I was up against Yale and Princeton and Harvard,” he said. “And I was able to hold up. I was able to hang in there.”

•••

Gene Nuziard started his career as a baker. He eventually became president of the company.

And that was just the start.

Nuziard nimbly navigated a career in commercial baking. He knew just when to get in or – more importantly – just when to get out of a business venture. When he left General Baking Company in the mid-1960s, he was quickly scooped up by Continental Baking Company (later ITT
Continental), where he eventually oversaw the entire Hostess Cake Division.

Nuziard was responsible for the production of confections such as Ho Hos, Sno Balls and Suzy Q’s. But his favorite, of course, were Twinkies.

But not for the reason that one might suspect.

“They had the biggest margin,” Nuziard says, matter-of-factly, before noting that lemon fruit pies came in at a close second place.

The best thing to come out of Nuziard’s career in the baking business, however, came many years before he was charged with making million-dollar decisions.

Nuziard was a student at the American Institute of Baking (now AIB International) when he was drafted for the Korean War. Upon his discharge, he returned to AIB to finish his schooling, and working the registration counter was a young blonde woman who had just been accepted to
Northwestern University.

A few days later when a group of classmates planned a night out, Nuziard thought of the pretty blonde woman working the registration counter. He asked her on a date. She said yes.

Gene and Marilyn Nuziard married a few years later in 1956.

“I guess that was a pretty good first date,” Gene Nuziard says today, smiling.

•••

Sixty-eight years after his graduation, Gene Nuziard remains very connected to his alma mater. The Nuziards have returned to campus many times and have been generous donors for decades.

Although Marilyn Nuziard is not an Illinois Wesleyan alum, she feels the same strong connection to the University her husband does.

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Attendees of the Scholarship Benefactor Dinner were served Twinkies in honor of Gene Nuziard, who formerly oversaw the Hostess Cake Division.

“Marilyn agrees with Wesleyan because she’s been down to Wesleyan, and she’s met a lot of the professors, and some of the people there, and she thinks it’s a great institution,” Gene
Nuziard said.

The Nuziards have also given back to Illinois Wesleyan by way of organizing alumni Connection events in Southern California.

Gene Nuziard remembers first being invited to a Los Angeles Connection event by former IWU President Minor Myers, jr. “This was before Los Angeles even had a skyscraper,” Nuziard recalled.

The day of the event, Myers lamented to Nuziard about attendance being poor, which Nuziard attributed to the location and the day of the week.

“I said to him, ‘You want to throw a party? I can throw a party and people will come,’” Gene Nuziard told the Illinois Wesleyan president.

Nuziard helped organize Connection events in Southern California at exclusive locations, like Riviera Country Club and a local yacht club. Attendance went up. “Minor was really happy with
that,” Nuziard remembered.

But the most significant way the Nuziards have “returned” to Illinois Wesleyan is through their promise to provide scholarship support that will impact thousands of future IWU students.

“I’m not thinking about my legacy at Wesleyan,” Gene Nuziard said when asked by Jensen. “I’m just thinking about what I’m doing for the people.

“I hope it makes a difference.”