Historic celebration: Lead donors for CoBPA honored at Alumni Center

Werner and Colleen Nistler honored on campus after announcing lead donation for new Nistler College of Business & Public Administration

In front of a large audience at the Gorecki Alumni Center, Werner Nistler made remarks following an “overwhelming” celebration of his and his wife’s contribution to a new building for the Nistler College of Business & Public Administration. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

At a ceremony in his and his wife Collen’s honor, Werner Nistler, sitting next to Colleen, found himself overwhelmed.

The Nistlers were front-and-center for the ceremony, which celebrated the new Nistler College of Business & Public Administration at the University of North Dakota. As the couple watched, a band marched in with Homecoming flair, University and state leaders praised the Nistler’s exceptionally generous contribution for a new building, and students wearing UND-green Nistler College T-shirts stood by as UND Student Body President Gracie Lian expressed the students’ collective gratitude.

Draped above the entrance to the Gorecki Alumni Center, a large banner bore the Nistler’s image, putting them among UND’s most-celebrated alums. The room itself was filled with students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends – all there to recognize the couple’s momentous gift.

But it was Werner’s memory of approaching the Chester Fritz Library more than 50 years ago that brought tears to his eyes in an interview with UND Today.

“I remember wondering, ‘Who was this person?”, meaning Chester Fritz. “How could he have brought forth the money to build this building?’” said Nistler, his soft voice a contrast to the past hour’s revelry, before pausing to collect himself.

“I thought, ‘Well, maybe there will be a time when I will be able to do something like that.”

It was a time that seemed distant for the young man arriving to UND from his family farm on the other side of the state, near Beach, N.D.

Nistler recalled the Saturday afternoon when he first stepped on campus, and what he did to ensure he could stay.

“By Monday, a few days before class started, I was working in the Smith [Hall] cafeteria,” he said. “Because, hey, it’s a job. You have to pay your way through school.”

He started in the dish room at 90 cents an hour. The next week, he heard that cleaning pots and pans offered a 20-cent bump. And as a cook’s helper, he could be earning even more: a full $1.30 an hour.

“It didn’t take too long to know I could be making more money,” he said, smiling. Then after his freshman year, Nistler became student manager after the person in that position graduated. Nistler maintained the position for three years, scheduling work hours and working alongside fellow students as he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He graduated in 1968.

“What a phenomenal job,” he remarked. “I left the University after four years, and I was sad not just because I was leaving UND, but also because I was leaving a full-time job. It was 40 hours a week, and I enjoyed it.”

With their company, Touchmark, finding success across the country, Werner and Colleen Nistler knew they wanted to give back in a significant way. After making scholarship donations in previous years, the timing was right to put forth the leading contribution for a new College of Business & Public Administration. Image courtesy of UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Inspired giving

As Friday’s fanfare showed, Nistler’s future had much more in store than washing dishes. After earning his master’s degree at the University of Arizona, Nistler honed his business acumen in Portland, Ore., working for accounting firms and developing the company that would eventually become Touchmark.

It’s also where he met his wife. Colleen is vice chairperson of the company Werner founded and currently chairs, which owns 14 full-service senior living communities in 10 states and one Canadian province, including North Dakota.

“Werner is so proud of being from North Dakota,” she said. “It was always in my mind that we would do something for the University of North Dakota. We’ve been blessed that Touchmark did really well, and we wanted to find ways to help people out.”

She, like Werner, came from a large family where money for college wasn’t available. It was the generosity of others, through scholarships, that enabled Colleen to gain an education while working part-time.

The Nistlers have contributed to UND scholarships in past years, and Colleen looks forward to having the same impact on upcoming generations of students in the Nistler College of Business & Public Administration.

“What we hope is that we’ve paid it forward for new students to come and have a fantastic education, then go out in the world and do the same thing,” she said.

Amy Henley, dean of the Nistler College, said the announcement of the naming two weeks ago led to millions more in commitment almost immediately.

“By the end of the day, we had another $3 million toward the project,” Henley said. “Because others saw the name and were inspired.

“This gift is truly changing education at UND for generations far past all of us.”

Henley looks forward to the pedagogical advancements available with a new building. Students today are graduating from phenomenal high school programs, she said, and they might be arriving at UND to find a more traditional setting and experience.

Renderings of the future College show advanced classrooms, improved gathering spaces and offices fitting of the fabulous faculty and staff who keep business and public administration education excelling at UND.

“Students have such high expectations, in a good way, about how we teach them and how they want to learn,” Henley said. “We need to be more advanced in our approach. In a new environment, we’re going to have opportunities to define the way we do that.”

Nistler is confident that his and his wife’s contribution will instill confidence in students to pursue their passions and make the world a better place. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Go forth and do good

Inducted into UND’s Accounting Hall of Fame in 2017, Nistler said he can clearly see what the University has done for everything he has in his life. His education helped cement his mission in enriching lives. Touchmark has been able to do that for its residents, their families and his employees, he said.

Bringing that mission back to UND, through leading the way to a state-of-the-art College of Business & Public Administration, can instill similar values in young people.

“Hopefully these young students will realize that there are people out there who care about them,” Nistler continued. “If they have that attitude, it gives them confidence and can take them to another level. They’ll be able to go forth and do good in the world. If we have more good people doing good things around the world, we’re going to have a better society.”