Shortly after I began working at Saint John's, we received a generous donation from an alumnus, Bill Nilles '52, and his wife Betty. Bill was an economics major at Saint John's, and he went on to have a 40-year career with Metropolitan Federal Bank in Fargo, ND. He was a teller, a loan officer, treasurer, vice-president, COO, and when he eventually retired he was president of the bank.
When Bill and Betty made their gift to Saint John's, as is our practice, we asked them how they would like it to be designated. Bill was insistent: "I want to leave it up to the university. If Br. Dietrich (the president of Saint John's at the time) wants to use it for a pizza party for the students, that's fine by me."
Twenty years later, this donation still sticks in my mind. It was noteworthy for several reasons. First, Bill was the type of person you don't easily forget. He was affable, positive, outgoing, and he had a wonderful sense of humor. I could easily see why he was a successful bank president. Second, their gift was quite generous, and it made a huge impact at Saint John's. But it was memorable especially because of his comment about the pizza party.
I don't think Bill ever intended us to use it for a pizza party, and I can assure you that we didn't use it for that purpose. Rather, it was designated to the Student Fund, scholarships, the Pottery Studio, and our top campaign priority at that time -- the Science Center. However, had we decided that a student pizza party was our most pressing need, I'm sure that Bill would have gone along with it. The point is, he trusted Saint John's and he believed that we had the best sense of our needs and priorities. He had faith in us and didn't want to second-guess our judgment.
Increasingly, donors to charities across the land are placing restrictions on their gifts, and while there is definitely a place for targeted giving, there's nothing like an unrestricted gift that can be directed to an organization's top priorities. All gifts are equally appreciated, but the flexibility that comes with an unrestricted donation is an added blessing.
Sadly, Bill passed away in 2007. His widow, Betty, continues to be a generous annual donor to Saint John's, supporting the Student Fund, the School of Theology Annual Fund and the Saint John's Pottery Studio.
Oh, and about that pizza party. About ten years ago members of the Alumni Association began funding a pizza party at La Playette for the senior class as part of the Senior Gift campaign. The cycle of giving continues, and I have to think that Bill Nilles would be pleased.