ST. PETERSBURG — In 1983, Leo Nussbaum took on the kind of job given only to proven dream builders.
Take over our fledgling Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College. Recruit doctors and scientists, politicians and professors. The program he built would attract those and more, including author James Michener and a retired general.
Many ASPEC members made their way into Eckerd classrooms as guest lecturers. "What could be a better model for a freshman than seeing an oldster here doing this for no pay, no credit, doing it just for fun?" he said in 1987.
He retired that same year to direct Eckerd's Program for Experienced Learners. Dr. Nussbaum, whose farm-bred seriousness and work ethic benefited several colleges, died Oct. 2 at age 95. Before a recent stroke, he was still sitting on boards and doing 50 pushups a day.
The accomplished academic almost never made it out of high school. Leo Lester Nussbaum was born in 1918 in Berne, Ind. His father, a Mennonite farmer, discouraged Dr. Nussbaum from finishing high school; otherwise, the boy's six younger brothers might want to do the same. Dr. Nussbaum consented to stay home for a year in the farmhouse, which contained only the Bible and one other book. The front door was perpetually locked.
"Everybody had to go around," said Felicity Nussbaum, 69, Dr. Nussbaum's daughter and a UCLA literature professor. "It became a kind of metaphor for his life."
When his father relented, he went back to high school, then Ball State University. In 1942 he met Janet Gladfelter, a co-worker at an aircraft company; they married a few months later. She waited tables while he earned a doctorate in education and psychology at Northwestern University. "He was so calm, so thoughtful and reasonable," his daughter said. "He sometimes wished he was more emotional."
Colleges trusted the calm, hardworking professor. In the late 1950s he became a Fulbright lecturer and took his family to India for a year. He assumed deanships at the University of Dubuque from 1952 to 1960 and Austin College from 1960 to 1967, where he spearheaded racial integration.
Dr. Nussbaum taught psychology at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, then served as the college's president from 1970 to 1982, when he retired to Florida.
"When I moved to Bahama Shores, a predominantly white community, he was one of the first persons to befriend me," said the Rev. Fred Terry, 80, a retired African-American pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church. The two men ate breakfast together each week for the next 20 years.
In 2002 Dr. Nussbaum published his memoirs, Unlocking the Front Door — a Personal Memoir from Depression Years on the Farm to College Presidency.