Donald Nichols, whose tenure leading the UW-Madison’s acclaimed graduate school of public policy helped shape economic development in the state, and who served as an economic adviser to two governors and a president, died Friday at age 72.
Nichols died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, caused by hepatitis C.
While his life was marked by high academic achievement and leadership, it was also steeped in grief. Nichols buried two wives, both succumbing to cancer. Nichols was married to Linda Powley for 20 years and to Barbara Jakubowski for 17 years. He is survived by Jane Bartels, his wife of 11 years.
A professor emeritus of economics and public affairs at UW-Madison, Nichols served two terms as director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs, from 2002 to 2006.
Carolyn Heinrich, who directed the school between 2008 and 2011, said Nichols’ direction was marked by the greatest growth for the school in terms of faculty and program development.
“He really took it to a whole ’nother level through recruitment, and expansion of the program,” Heinrich said.
While he was highly respected for the contributions he made to the state’s economic development, he was also “just very kindhearted and humble,” she said. “He really had his heart in Wisconsin.”
Nichols was born in Madison, Conn., and received his doctorate in economics from Yale University, where in 1970-71 he would return as a visiting professor.
In 1963, Nichols served on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers to the U.S. president, and in 1975 and 1976, on the staff of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. In the late 1970s, he was deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, and in the 1980s, he was an economic adviser to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Earl. He would later serve on Gov. Jim Doyle’s Economic Advisory Council.
Nichols was also on the original board of Thompson Plumb Funds starting in 1987, and would serve as chairman of the board after the financial firm was reconfigured.
“He was really a high-caliber person and was obviously one of the experts on the Midwest and the Wisconsin economy,” said fund founder Tom Plumb. “He was a great sounding board for our investment strategy and our ideas.”
Nichols’ son, Charles, of Madison, called his father “a great person, a dad who was there for me.”
Charles was too grief-stricken to say much Sunday, simply adding, “His passing is hard. But I will remember him for the great memories that I had with him.”