Willard Nathan Nyman, who we have always called Papa, was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on August 18, 1945, to Willard and Lois Nyman. Four years later his brother Kenneth entered the family. Their father, a jewelry store owner, and mother, an elementary school teacher, instilled in their boys a strong work ethic and taught them the value of education. Papa loved being a student. In high school he was captain of the debate team and editor of the school newspaper.
From there he went on to Northwestern University, majoring in history with a minor in Russian, graduating in 1967. But Papa didn’t just get his degree. The things he learned became part of his identity. He was called by many friends a “walking encyclopedia,” able to recite historical dates and facts quickly off the top of his head. As for his Russian, he continued to practice the language, going through flashcards in his spare time and often announcing at the dinner table the Russian word for “peas” and “chicken” and anything else on the family menu that night.
Education and Career
After earning his undergraduate degree, my dad entered law school at the University of Illinois. The Vietnam War held America’s attention at that point, and Papa joined the military ROTC, entering officer’s candidate school as well. He also served in the active Army Reserve for eight years.
After graduating from the U of I in 1972, Papa began his career in the trust department at a Chicago bank before moving into a law practice with several other lawyers. He went on to develop his own law firm, which evolved into a real estate investment firm. For the past twenty years, my dad practiced law independently in the Loop, working alongside his brother-in-law Tom and a group of lawyers he came to know and love. He also served as a Police Commissioner in Prospect Heights from 1988 to 2009.
Papa loved to work, but his life was so much more than that. He was forever changed the day he met Margaret Johnson during his senior year at Northwestern. From their first meeting (on a blind date!), he knew she was the one he wanted for his wife. They were married at Moody Church on November 29, 1969, and for the rest of his life our dad was devoted to his Margaret, our mom. Over the years he brought her countless bouquets of flowers, and it was a Nyman family joke that when it was time to buy something for her, he would do it in multiples. Whether it was a camera for Christmas or birthday jewelry, Papa would always give my mom at least two versions. Even when it came to milk from the grocery store, a request for one gallon always meant Papa would arrive home with two or three. He loved providing for her and taught by example that a husband should treasure his wife.
Our dad was also devoted to God. He became a member of Moody Church in 1969, faithfully attending every week for 20 years until he and my mom decided to attend church in the suburbs where the kids could attend mid-week activities. They became members of the Arlington Heights Evangelical Free Church (now called The Orchard Evangelical Free Church) in 1989. At Moody Church, Papa was a high school sponsor and Sunday school teacher, rewarding scripture memorization with dollar bills. He continued teaching Sunday school at The Orchard, also enjoying the men’s retreats and his small group, which he liked to call his “Encouragement Group.” He also went with Josh McDowell on a mission trip to Russia to deliver shoes to children, using his Russian to communicate with the locals.
Papa’s goal was to be a good example, especially to his children. He worked hard to model integrity and faithfulness to all seven of us. He also wanted us to have fun — a LOT of fun. He was a master at organizing big outings to places like Great America and Chuck E. Cheese. Traditions were very important to him. Every Sunday after church he took our family out for brunch, usually at Granny Annie’s Pancake House. Each year during the holiday season he treated us to lunch at Marshall Field’s downtown. Back before restaurants used pagers, he would stand in line for what was usually a two-hour table wait at the Walnut Room, holding everyone’s coats while we ran around and shopped.
Big vacations were another specialty. For years Papa took us to the north woods of Wisconsin every summer, hauling a trailer filled with motorcycles and go-carts behind the family station wagon. A spring break trip to Sanibel Island, Florida, was another favorite family tradition. So many of the photos displayed here today show our dad in his swimming suit, enjoying the water with all of us.
One of Papa’s favorite trips of all time was to a legendary place he’d been fascinated with for years. We all know how much he loved Elvis, and finally in 2005 he went with a few of us to Graceland. He liked it so much he went back again in 2007, this time taking his brother Ken along for the ride.
As his kids grew older and moved away from home, Papa made more of an effort to communicate with us. Never one to quickly embrace new technology, he instead chose to send each of his kids a weekly note. Every Sunday after church and lunch, he would sit down and write on an index card a brief update on life at the Nyman house. His horrible handwriting made reading the cards a challenge, but it was always worth the effort. The amount of information he included on those tiny index cards was remarkable.
Until this year, Papa led a healthy life, but on September 22, that changed. In a meeting with a panel of doctors, he and my mom learned that he had cancer, and not just cancer, but stage four, metastasized pancreatic cancer. The doctors were surprised to see him arrive for the meeting in a suit and tie, straight from a full day of work. From what they’d seen on paper, they’d assumed he’d show up in a wheelchair. Despite his pain, he’d been heading to the office faithfully every day, just as he always had. Quiet perseverance was always one of Papa’s defining characteristics.
Over the following 42 days, as Papa’s cancer spread and his pain level increased, he never complained. He accepted the reality of his diagnosis and bravely discussed his limited future and our future without him. Always a careful provider, he wanted to make sure he left everything in order for us. He stoically endured fourteen radiation treatments, each involving a 150-mile round trip from Michigan to Chicago. Family dinners had always been a highlight of his day, and he continued the tradition even when it was too painful for him to sit in a straight chair at the dining room table. Instead we would pull chairs up around his recliner. As the days passed, he ate less and less, but he still welcomed everyone to enjoy their dinner around him.
My mom has said many times over the last six weeks that God’s fingerprints have been all over these difficult circumstances, and Papa’s death proved the truth of her words. Many pancreatic cancer patients die in horrible pain, but our dad slept peacefully for 24 hours before simply taking one last quiet breath. All of his children, their spouses, and his grandchildren were in the house when it happened. And his wife, as always, was right by his side as he entered eternity, kissing his face while her tears streamed onto his cheeks. It was an awful, but beautiful moment — a painful goodbye, but another sweet testimony to God’s gentle care for Papa and the genuine love of our parents’ marriage. We are so blessed to have had Papa for our dad and we are grateful that God has promised a happy reunion again someday to all who believe in him.
Guest contributor Margaret Nyman and her family have chronicled the 42 days after husband and father Nate, a patient at Rush University Medical Center, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Read more posts by visiting the Coping With Cancer section or subscribing to the RSS feed. Her personal blog is at www.GettingThroughThis.com.