Remembering Bruce Nicoll

As we honor our 75th anniversary this year, we recall and celebrate some of the most influential people in the Press’s history. 

bruce nicollBruce Nicoll

(1913–1983) 

The press’s second director, Bruce Nicoll, was a native of Wyoming who came to the University of Nebraska in the early thirties to study journalism. Nicoll picked up a slew of writing awards before graduating in 1935 and joining the staff of the Lincoln Star where he burnished his reporting credentials enough to win a spot on the front-page index, along with other Nebraska journalist luminaries like Barney Oldfield and Cy Sherman.

Nicoll served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and was attached to bomber and fighter wings in the European theater, according to his son, Douglas Nicoll, of Omaha. The younger Nicoll finds his father’s duties as a military police officer to be out of character for his peaceful temperament. He remembers his father as steady, loyal, and dedicated—traits that served him well when he returned from the war. Bruce Nicoll had intended to rejoin the newsroom ranks, but University of Nebraska public relations director George Round recruited him to the university’s public relations office. Soon, Nicoll had become a trusted adviser to the chancellor, essentially serving as chief of staff.

When Emily Schossberger left in 1958, the press directorship sat empty until Chancellor Clifford Hardin named Nicoll to the post later that year. In a 1991 speech, historian James C. Olson said Nicoll was at first considered a surprising choice but soon proved inspired. Hardin, said Olson, had an instinct for recognizing talent and taking a chance on it. Olson surmised that Nicoll required the university to place the press on surer financial footing, which allowed Nicoll to take risks as well, including elevating the supremely talented Virginia Faulkner to editor in chief.

Robert Knoll, in Prairie University, wrote of the pair: “His enterprise and her editorial acumen brought international attention to the press and the University.”

Nicoll immediately began to expand the press’s list, specializing in history of the American West, a particular area of interest to him, but also an area in which Nebraska stood to shine. The press had for years hoped to outpace the University of Oklahoma as the premiere publisher of quality scholarship in western history and literature. And while Nicoll may not have achieved the goal in his tenure, Olson noted that his successors did.

Nicoll’s big idea was to combine the emerging popularity of paperback books with the republishing of out-of-print or public domain works of literature and history. Thus was born Bison Books, whose distinctive logo was found on inexpensive paperbacks sold at hotels, drugstores, motels, grocery stores, tourist traps, and bookstores. Bill Regier, press director from 1987 to 1995, said that for years South Dakota’s Wall Drug sold more Bison Books than any other outlet. Bison Books developed into a line that reached beyond the American West. They were promoted to teachers and faculty who might be attracted to the lower-cost editions, a strategy that worked.

During Nicoll’s tenure the press began to increase its sales; a November 1963 article in the Sunday Lincoln Journal and Star noted that sales in 1963 were up 40 percent over the previous year, which had topped $120,000 on sales of 72,000 books. Since its founding, the article said, the press had published 244 works and sold books in 1,200 locations worldwide.

“Nicoll tries to steer an equitable course in the popularity of new titles,” wrote reporter Dick Herman. “Less than half of UNP’s is Americana, he reports, although it is precisely this half with which the non-University reader may be most acquainted.”

Nicoll’s son remembers his father as being studious and detail oriented. After family dinner, at which the senior Nicoll usually wore his dress shirt and tie, he would retire to his upstairs study to write and read for three hours, until rejoining the family for ice cream before bed.

“He was very steady. He was of his era. The greatest generation. He had a tremendous work ethic,” Doug Nicoll said. Bruce Nicoll and his wife, Pat, enjoyed playing bridge; Bruce was adept at crossword puzzles and relished a good pun. Doug remembers his parents liked classical music, and his father would often conduct along with records played on a large hi-fi set prominent in the family living room. He remembers his father as being a loyal Cornhusker who enjoyed football games even during the dismal losing seasons of the pre-Devaney era.

Nicoll’s daughter, Kathryn Nicoll Larimer, remembers meeting press authors John Neihardt and Mari Sandoz. Pat Nicoll, who died in 1971, had managed a bookstore and often hosted book signings.

Although not a conventional scholar, Nicoll was a student of history and archeology, a founding member of the Western History Association, and a respected writer. He co-wrote, with University of Nebraska public relations colleague Ken Keller, a biography of Sam McKelvie, Nebraska’s nineteenth governor. He wrote Nebraska: A Pictorial History, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1967; the book won an award of merit from the American Association for State and Local History in 1968. In the mid-sixties he wrote the libretto for an opera written by UNL music professor and composer Robert Beadell.

Bruce Nicoll took early retirement from the press in 1973. His son and daughter believe their father suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Nicoll died December 23, 1983, in Lincoln.

Profile by Kim Hachiya