Mount Prospect builder's legacy of community service lauded
Nick Papanicholas Sr., who died Tuesday at 68 days after suffering cardiac arrest at his Mount Prospect home, was a master builder, piloting a wide range of public building projects -- encompassing everything from schools to golf courses.
But it was a private and very personal project, the Mount Prospect Ice Arena, that was dearest to his heart.
The project grew out of the need for a local club hockey team whose members included two of his grandchildren to find convenient access to ice. Papanicholas transformed a vacant 71,000-square-foot building at 1501 Feehanville Drive into a showplace for youth hockey, taking the $12 million project from coffee table discussion to completion in under a year.
Over the past 10 years, schools became a specialty of his full-service contracting firm, Nicholas & Associates Inc., which handled projects for more than 35 local school districts, all delivered under tight deadlines.
His motto was, "The kids will walk through those front doors the first day of school," his son, Nick Jr., said.
As deftly as he balanced construction projects, he found an equilibrium between work and family, which included his wife, Nancy, and sons Nick Jr., Joe and Tony, and daughter Gina Bertolini.
"I have no idea how he did it," Nick Jr. said. "He literally coached us all in every sport, whether it was me in football or my brothers in baseball or my sister in basketball."
He coached for more than 20 years in the Mount Prospect Baseball Association, the Mount Prospect Football Association and St. Emily's Catholic School Boys and Girls Basketball teams. He also ran the Hot Shot Classic annual 3 on 3 basketball tournament at Maryville Academy for many years.
"That guy had just a huge heart," Mount Prospect Village Manager Michael Cassady said.
His social pursuits included golf, which he played for 25 years as a member of the Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, and Blackhawks and Bears games.
Papanicholas said in an interview in September that his destiny was sealed when he went to work at Emery Worldwide and met Nancy Dawson, who became his wife and lifelong partner in 1978 -- about the time he started a small construction business.
That grew into more recent projects such as the 21-acre Buckingham Place on the former Littelfuse property in Des Plaines, the new Dekalb High School, the Elk Grove Township District 59 Early Learning Center and all five Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 swimming pools.
Friends, family and business associates credit his success in part to his charismatic personality.
He was a "regular" guy with a sense of humor and the ability to entertain a roomful of people with stories.
"He didn't cut corners when it came to consumers," said Butch Ehrke, Des Plaines assistant director of community development. "I think that's why he got along so well with the school districts."
"Nick truly understood that the work they did, especially for school districts, was more than just 'brick and mortar,' recognizing it has a real impact on all its stakeholders," said Tony Rossi, executive director for facilities and operations with District 59.
Dan Benassi, a real estate broker, worked with Papanicholas to acquire the ice arena property.
"It's a testament to their reputation that their vendors worked around the clock for six months to get that project done on time and on an unbelievably tight schedule," he said.
He told how Papanicholas, in his blue jeans and sweatshirt, negotiated the Littelfuse deal at that company's headquarters. "He simply said, 'I want to buy this and here is my money.'"
Papanicholas passed down his expertise and love of his work to his children as he welcomed them into the business.
"He instilled a work ethic in us at an early age," Nick Jr. said. "I started laboring for him at 12 years old. … It set us up for success at such a young age."
Visitation will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. today at Cumberland Funeral Chapels, 8300 W. Lawrence Ave., Norridge. Services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. James Catholic Church, 820 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights.