Education was among Leo Nussbaum’s life passions, and he pursued it against the odds for himself and then for the thousands of students he led over a decade as president of Coe College.
After leaving the Cedar Rapids institution in 1982, Nussbaum continued classroom teaching and – in his “retirement” – took over Florida’s Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College.
In a letter to Coe faculty and staff, President Dave McInally said Nussbaum made that “fledgling” academy “viable,” highlighting the leadership qualities he also exemplified at Coe.
“He was known as a quiet leader who gave credit to faculty, staff and students for the college’s accomplishments,” McInally said.
Nussbaum died Oct. 2 in St. Petersburg, Fla., at age of 95. Until a recent stroke, Nussbaum was doing 50 pushups a day, McInally said, bringing back memories of his early-morning badminton habit while at Coe.
During Nussbaum’s 12-year tenure as Coe president from 1970 to 1982, enrollment grew by nearly 30 percent “with an improved academic profile,” McInally said. He also oversaw construction of the Dows Fine Arts Center, Natatorium and Gage Annex, and implemented “major” curriculum reforms.
Friends remember him as a man unafraid of taking risks and charting new territory. Nussbaum grew up on a farm in Indiana and pursued an education – starting with his high school diploma – over the objections of his father, according to McInally.
He went on to earn a degree at Ball State University and a doctorate in education and psychology at Northwestern University. He became a Fulbright scholar and spent time in India, McInally said.
He served as a dean at the University of Dubuque, Austin College and Coe College before taking the helm as president in 1970 and playing a pivotal role in the development of Coe as it stands today.
James Phifer, Coe’s newest former president, said he came to know Nussbaum through Coe community and alumni events and found him to be an engaging and remarkable man.
“He was willing to experiment academically,” Phifer said. “That was something the older members of campus will remember well.”
John Brown served as Coe president between Nussbaum and Phifer, who took over in 1995 and retired in July. Even though there was no overlap, Phifer said, he saw Nussbaum on an annual basis and enjoyed reminiscing about old times with him.
Phifer said he respects Nussbaum for the advancements he made at the college during a difficult time in the country’s history. It had just emerged from the Vietnam conflict, and stock market returns weren’t enough to help support the college.
“He didn’t have that as a pillar of support, but he still built the facilities we needed,” Phifer said. “He not only held the place together, he made academic progress in a difficult economic time.”
Phifer said Nussbaum’s leadership, along with that of his predecessors and followers, paved the way for what Coe is today – a nationally-recognized four-year institution with 1,400 students from 33 states and 15 countries.
“Every president stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before him,” Phifer said.