Reflections on the Life of Eric Thomas Nord

“Your life has been a magnificent love song and we thank you for the teaching us the verse!”

Foundations are a uniquely American phenomenon with roots back to the 17th century. Almost all charitable foundations are grounded in an experience of benevolence beckoning people to think of their neighbors in need. Thomas Jefferson saw charity as an essential component to uphold the democracy. Addressing the vestrymen in each parish of Virginia, Jefferson insisted that philanthropy was charitable motivation that, when acted upon, provided the well intended with “the approbation of their neighbors, and the distinction which that gives them.” I can imagine Eric chiding Mr. Jefferson letting him know that philanthropy should never be done to seek the approval of neighbors. Eric’s philanthropy was more closely aligned with other Founders of the American Republic who believed that benevolent and unselfish acts by an individual towards others was a mainstay of civil society and essential to the survival of the democracy.The staff and I had the pleasure of seeing Eric on his last visit to the foundation offices two weeks ago. He, Jane and their son Richard made a point of stopping by for lunch after visiting the Nordson offices in Amherst. In front of Jane and Richard, Eric told us how proud he was of the foundation and of its accomplishments. After a pause, we swallowed and began passing Kleenex around the table, I thought it my role to break the silence and said, “Well Eric, it’s thanks to you that we and your family can continue this great work.” His response was, “well I didn’t have much to do with its success.” It was a deeply touching and joyful experience for all of us.

After we said good-bye I sensed he had come to Amherst to run the last lap. The visit haunted me, and my thoughts on his visit that day brought me to one of the most ancient prayers of the Christian tradition known as The Magnificat. I gave myself the luxury of listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s composition of that wonderfully meditative piece. Program notes tell us that this is the joyous prayer that Mary, mother of Jesus, sings as she is greeted by her sister Elizabeth. Her prayer, it says, cooperates in a unique way with the Father’s plan of loving kindness. When I heard of Eric’s passing I once again centered my reflections by listening to the Magnificat and in particular the first two lines:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Now, I will not give a religious speech, and save that for Fr. Brian. I will, however, draw an analogy that Eric was the incarnation of loving kindness and how his life has magnified that goodness in many he came to know. Ed Campbell described his devotion to the Nordson Corporation where his business provided livelihood to many that were members of that corporate family. It also was a place for some of the most talented engineering minds to find innovative products for the market.

I speak of the Nord Family Foundation which, together with his brother Evan and dear friend Bill Ginn, was established to allow people in the community to benefit from the wealth of the company and later, from the family’s wealth.

The foundation is, however, more than an institution that just writes checks. The foundation is a civic organization that aspires to engage the entire community in the betterment of the social fabric. Since it was founded, the Nord Family Foundation has distributed more than $70 million dollars. What people may not realize is that many of the grants made to organizations have been what we call “Challenge” grants where the foundation will give a certain portion but then challenge the organizations board or other members of the community to match yet another portion of the grant. Some of Eric’s greatest challenge grants include The Community Foundation of Lorain County, The Oberlin Early Childhood Center, Oberlin Community Services, and The Splash Zone. In almost all cases, people stepped up to meet the challenge and make contributions. If nothing else, Evan and Eric wanted to have the Foundation serve as a place that would encourage everyone to give a little more of themselves. In short, Eric challenges all of us to magnify our kindness and in turn celebrate the joy that comes with giving.

The foundation is a FAMILY foundation which is celebrating its twentieth year this year. With stock from their mother’s estate Eric and Evan’s families, along with the children of their sister Mary were invited to participate in an institution that would propagate the spirit of generosity and giving that began with their own parents Walter and Virginia Nord. In 1988, The Nord Family Foundation began.

The foundation is there to enable the family to explore their own passion for others. The foundation nurtures their spirit of care and kindness, allowing them to magnify the goodness in their own hearts and gift themselves as well as money to the communities they serve. Just like the corporation he founded, the family Foundation invites trustees and the nonprofit organizations to work together to develop creative and innovative solutions to society’s challenges. Through the foundation, Eric’s core of innovation and entrepreneurship took another form.

Now, Eric was never one to let money come to someone easily, and that spirit exists in this foundation. Just as he and Evan were known to put challenges onto grantees, they also threw down challenges to the trustees and members of the foundation.

It’s nice to have a passion, but you have to work for the money. The foundation is comprised of twelve people, nine family descendants and three non-family members. Not one person is paid for their service on the board. Trustees give freely of their time and effort.

The board is not a homogeneous club of privilege. It is an interesting and eclectic group and I believe Eric wanted it that way. I can hear Eric reflecting on its composition: we have artists, engineers, (ok so far) Republicans, (all right but careful), Democrats (oh god!) and throw in a Libertarian or two (to this he might have put his hands together and said, Swedes can be silent in many languages) and you get something that reflects the halls of the U.S. Congress. (Sometimes we check ahead of time whether to bring bicycle helmets and shin guards.)

We have members who are wealthy and many who worry about paying for their children’s school or braces. Some have to travel distances to participate in the discussions and even in the grim Ohio Februaries – they do come! Passions often run high, and grant requests are scrutinized and debated and the board struggles and prods to make the wisest decisions for investments in the communities. Site visits are a requirement of their stewardship on the foundation board. Nothing is more rewarding and humbling to go on site visits to meet with those heroes of our society who choose to serve the neediest of the towns and cities where we live. Our board meetings are long and, at times, exhausting. It’s hard work and Eric liked that. He enjoyed the struggle, enjoyed hearing the differing opinions. He loved to watch the political conversation and took deep pleasure with the outcome. He often has amusing comments of his own. Of one trustee he said wryly, “That one is very smart and deeply read—not widely read, just deeply read.” Nothing gave him greater pleasure than to watch his family scruff and tumble about issues of importance to the community.

Whenever he was asked for his opinion on an organization, Eric would show stunning knowledge of the administration, the mission and accomplishments. Even in his final year, he wanted to hear about what was going on with various organizations, and what kind of help they needed. He had a profound respect for the people who ran these organizations.

In addition to remarkably successful grantmaking the foundation has enabled its members to give of their own passion:

  • Evan and his father’s passion for mentally challenged people gave rise to The Nord Center and Vocational Guidance Services in Elyria.
  • Jane Nord with her passion for art and educating young children resulted in, among other things, the New Union Center for the Arts and the KidSmart program at the Oberlin Early Childhood Center.
  • Gini Barbarto’s love of Opera enables us to support Opera programs in schools throughout NE Ohio.
  • Cindy Nord with her passion for caring for abused women and children resulted in The Nurturing Center in Columbia, South Carolina and Common Ground here in Oberlin.
  • Pam Ignat and her passion for helping homeless women in Denver resulted in a fantastic day-shelter for women known as The Gathering Place.

The list can go on and on…

In the next generation, Erin Ignat Jorgenson’s passion for helping young men and women with eating disorders created an educational theatre company and Eric Barbato’s passion for bettering the lives of poor families in Appalachia resulted in squadrons of youngsters from Cleveland building homes for our country’s neediest families.

In May, we lost a member Bruce Nord who, in the final years of his life, was able to use the foundation to magnify his own passion and love for children at the Montessori School in Anderson S.C. In that case, the foundation served as a source of healing and redemption.

These are people who do not use the foundation to push a personal agenda, but to usher the foundation to discover new areas of need and care.

At our most recent meeting last week, Eric’s nephew Ethan Nord exclaimed to the members, “Being on this board has made me a better citizen.”

That is what American philanthropy provides, not just checks but an opportunity for all who participate to become larger than themselves and magnify the kindness and goodness that lies in their hearts.

The foundation is a continuation of the incarnation of kindness and benevolence that was Eric’s life.

In the foundation archives, we have video tape of Eric talking about the wealth that generated the foundation. Eric stated, “I just consider myself to have been a lucky guy and my responsibility to share that good fortune with others.” That you did dear friend in your own inimitable style.

Eric, as a servant of the foundation and as spokesperson for the thousands of people who have benefited from your magnificent kindness and love, I thank you for showing us what true citizenship means. Your life has been a magnificent love song and we thank you for the teaching us the verse!

John Mullaney
The Nord Family Foundation
June 27, 2008
Finney Chapel, Oberlin