By Lee Manchester
When Mike Nicolais and Margaret Christie enrolled in Wagner College in 1945, they came from Staten Island families of modest means. Their financial situation was like the College's — adequate, but humble. Most of the buildings that make up today's campus did not exist, and more students were housed in temporary war-surplus buildings than in permanent residence halls.
Wagner College's fortunes have ridden a rising tide over the past six decades, and so have the Nicolaises'. While Mike and Margaret married and built a healthy family, a prosperous philanthropic fund, and a strong record of community service, the College built its campus, its faculty and curriculum, and its public esteem, rising from a tiny commuter college to become a Top 25 regional university.
In recent years, Mike and Margaret have become a big part of Wagner's success. In 2004, their $2.5 million gift made possible the renovation and expansion of the president's house as a site for important meetings with College supporters. And they continue to play an integral role in Wagner's future. In 2007, the couple made the single largest contribution in Wagner College history — $10 million — as a down payment on our next major building project: the Center for Global Learning, to be constructed on the site of the old Augustinian Academy. They are also serving as co-chairs of the campaign to raise the rest of the money needed for the new building.
Earlier this year, we asked the Nicolaises to come back to Grymes Hill, walk the campus, and tell us about the place where their life together began, and where so much of the wealth they have built is being invested in the future. This walk down memory lane reminds us of where Wagner has come from, what it has achieved, and where it can go in the future.
The center of campus life in the post-war years, especially for commuter students like Margaret and Mike, was the Ad Building, known today as Main Hall. From the basement to the attic, it housed the snack bar, the gym, most of the College's classrooms, many faculty and administrative offices, the library — almost everything that made Wagner College a college.
Since our tour took place on the day after commencement, all was quiet, and it was easy to imagine the ghosts of the past as we walked the empty hallways.
“I used to play basketball in here,” said Margaret when we walked into the darkened theater. In the late 1940s, today's Main Stage served as the gym, chapel, and banquet hall.
One floor down, in the basement, Mike recalled the Guilden, the snack bar once located there.
“It was run by a German couple,” Mike said, “Mr. and Mrs. Viohl.”
“Such nice people,” Margaret said.
“He was a good guy; I liked him. He was tough,” Mike said.
Upstairs, on the north end of the third floor, was another hangout: the library. Looking up at the open beams and steeply sloping ceilings, Mike said, “I remember this.”
“But I don't remember ever opening a book up here,” admitted Margaret. “This was where we did our homework.”
“[Business professor] Charlie Kraemer used to pile it on,” Mike explained — he and Margaret had both studied business at Wagner. “You had to work in his classes. … We spent a fair amount of time up here in the library, working on accounting, adding up the figures for our spreadsheets.”
That led us to Professor Kraemer's classroom, on the south end of the first floor.
“This was it!” Margaret exclaimed when we found the classroom door. “We were in here for a lot of classes with Dr. Kraemer. He was one that I loved.”
He was also tough. “At the beginning of each term, he would explain the rules,” recalled Margaret. “'You're going to get 11 pop quizzes, and I don't care if your mother or father died and you went to the funeral.' … There were absolutely no excuses.”
The Nicolaises' friendship with Charles Kraemer continued for many years after their graduation.
“We had lunch with him just a few months before he died [in March 2002],” Mike said. “He was a remarkable teacher in many ways. … He was probably a bigger influence on my life than anyone except my parents.”
Right next door, where today's Megerle Science Building stands, was another hangout for Mike and Margaret: the so-called Veterans Village, consisting of half a dozen one-story Army barracks and a two-story war surplus dormitory. These had been hastily erected to house the flood of young men returning from the war with GI Bill® college funding. During that period, Wagner's enrollment soared from 440 students in 1945 to more than 2,000 in 1949.
Mike himself was an Army infantry veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, and he and Margaret were pals with several Veterans Village residents — especially Frank '50 and Janet Mann '50 McCormick. Both the McCormicks were Navy veterans; he served as a fighter pilot and she was a member of the women's reserve corps, known as the WAVES.
“They had a couple of children, and they were both taking classes,” Mike recalled. “Their course schedules were arranged so that one of them was home all the time with the kids, who were pre-schoolers. We used to go over there when we had a free period, have a cup of coffee. Whether Janet was home or Frank was home, it didn't make any difference, we just walked in.”
“And tell them what happened on that hot, hot day we graduated,” Margaret said.
“Geryle, the little guy, he was maybe three years old, and he had a beret on,” Mike replied. “I said to him, 'Geryle, you're wearing a hat today?'
“He said, 'My daddy gave me a haircut, and my mom's trying to hide it!'”
Mike and Margaret's first date was, not surprisingly, a Wagner College affair.
The two had known one another for a couple of years before that date, having shared many of the same business classes. But it took a (more or less) blind date to bring them together as a couple.
Mike's classmate and boyhood buddy, Sam Antico '49, had arranged the date with Renee Richard '50 (later Renee Snyder) and her friend, Margaret Christie. They needed a fourth, and Sam suggested that Mike come along.
“On our way down to pick up the girls at Renee's house, on the other side of Silver Lake,” Mike recalled, “Sam said to me, 'You know, I don't really know Renee any more than you do. How do you want to pair off?'
“We decided that when we got to the house we would open both the front and back doors, and whoever got in the front would be his date, and whoever got in the back would be mine.
“Margaret got in the back seat — and the rest is history.
“We did a very daring thing on that first date,” Mike added. “It must have been late October, because we went to a Halloween party at a local church and bobbed for apples.
“We were wild, I tell you!”
Following their graduation in 1949, Mike went to work as a junior accountant at the Clark Estates, which manages the investment funds of the Clark Foundation of Cooperstown.
“They gave me a job on a trial basis for $225 a month,” Mike said. “When I retired 42 years later [having served for 26 years as president] I said, 'I guess I'm still on trial — nobody told me I was off!'”
Meanwhile, Margaret left New York City for two years of nursing school in Chicago. Neither of them can recall exactly when they decided to marry, but at some point after her return to Staten Island, they both knew that “we were just right for each other,” as Margaret said.
They were married on June 7, 1953.
“The first 57 years are the tough ones,” Mike added. “It gets easy after that.”
VIDEO WEB EXCLUSIVE: See 1940s vintage and contemporary Wagner photographs as Mike and Margaret share their college memories and life philosophy.