Dr. Nick Nissley wanted to show his gratitude for a chance at a better life, so he joined the Alumni Advisory Council of the school that taught him discipline, responsibility and leadership — the Milton Hershey School — when asked by the school’s president. Nissley, an assistant professor of organization learning and development at St. Thomas, was a resident of the school from ninth through 12th grade.
The Milton Hershey School, named after the confectionaries magnate, attends to children’s physical, social, educational, psychological and spiritual needs. Milton and Catherine Hershey, who were not able to have children of their own, founded the school in 1909 in Hershey, Pa., for orphans. The kindergarten-12th-grade school later welcomed "social orphans," whose parents could not provide for them. Everything is provided free at the school, including books, room, board, medical and dental care, clothing, and extracurricular expenses and equipment. When students graduate, they receive $100 and a "senior suitcase," two new suits or sets of professional attire in a suitcase.
"I feel incredibly blessed to be given what I was given while I was there," Nissley said.
Nissley, whose mother died when he was five, lived with his father, an alcoholic steelworker, until his father suggested that Nick might like to attend the nearby Milton Hershey School. "I didn’t want to bring up the subject because I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings, but when he mentioned the school to me, I jumped at the chance. I saw it as a fresh start," Nick said.
When he attended the Milton Hershey School in the early 1980s, he lived with 15 other boys in a house with Sue and Paul Shaffer as the housemother and housefather. The couple and their daughter lived in an adjoining house. "We lived as a family; we did house chores like cleaning and cooking breakfast, and farm chores," Nissley said. Although today students no longer farm, Nissley remembered it as an integral part of his education.
"The farm aspect is powerful to me. It shapes me in the classroom today. Education doesn’t merely occur in the classroom. Some of the richest learning I’ve had was in the barn at 3 a.m. One night the dairy man, Mr. Hoffer, knocked on our door and said he needed three boys. We helped him pull a calf out of the mother. I remember the energy, the thrill, the stink! We helped give birth. We learned basic things about biology by actually experiencing them.
"I believe that a classroom is one of the least educating environments around today," he continued. "There’s a bigger arena of education outside the classroom. I try to get my students to connect our ideas in class into their workplace, because that’s the real classroom. That’s what attracted me to organization learning."
The Milton Hershey School still is going strong. It was the main beneficiary of the Hershey fortune, now held in a trust worth $4.5 billion. It now is home to 1,163 students and accepts only about 200 out of 900 applicants each year.
Nissley’s research, teaching and consulting interests focus on organizational aesthetics — how art can inform our understanding of organizational life. He has a master’s degree in management from the McGregor School of Antioch University in Ohio and a doctorate in human resource development from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Elise Ballinger, a teacher at Harriet Bishop Elementary School in Burnsville, moved to Minneapolis in August.
Nissley started teaching graduate courses in St. Thomas’ School of Education last fall. One dealt with the "art of downsizing."
"A (manager’s) rational approach to saving money might be to downsize," Nissley said. "We offer another way of looking at this, using photography, literature and film, so that students know what downsizing really looks like." The class examined Bill Bamberger’s photographs of a furniture factory going out of business; they read and viewed "Death of a Salesman" about a man who loses his job; and they viewed "Roger and Me," a film about the closing of an automotive plant in Flint, Mich.
Although almost 1,000 miles away and several years older, Nissley is loyal to the school that supported and guided him during his adolescence and to the memory of Milton Hershey. Recently, he suggested the idea of electronic mentoring to its alumni director, who implemented this Web-based resource to help alumni with transition issues that arose after graduation.
In his St. Thomas office, Nissley keeps a replica of a statue depicting Hershey with an arm around a boy. The inscription reads: "His deeds are his monument, his life is our inspiration." "I try to think of this in my life, in my daily deeds," Nissley said.