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June 2000

The Hopkins Heritage
of Compassionate Leadership

by Maria Scrivani

Go ahead, knock the weather. Make fun of our sports teams. We know what makes Western New York great: It’s people like Nels and Nick Hopkins. This father-son duo has made lifetime commitments to public service and professional success, in the worlds of business and medicine respectively. Recently L. Nelson Hopkins, Jr. and Dr. L. Nelson Hopkins III were honored with the NCCJ’s first Intergenerational Award in recognition of their wisdom, care and compassion.

The senior Hopkins, Nels, is former CEO of the venerable mechanical contracting firm John W. Danforth Co. Though he’s well past standard retirement age, there’s nothing standard about Nels Hopkins. When he stepped down from the top slot in the early ‘90s to allow a younger group of administrators to take over, he stayed on as a director. He’s still going into the office every day claiming it’s because his wife Jane says, “for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”

In fact Nels is a valued member of the management team at Danforth, having worked his way up through the ranks (he started as a clerk for the company in 1939). “I don’t work as hard as I once did,” Nels admits, “but I feel a little bit needed, a little bit wanted, and it’s a great joy to continue in a much-reduced capacity.” He laughs at the relief of having “absolutely no authority.”

What he does have is gravity, a seriousness of purpose, a wisdom of the ages, if you will, that serves him well in the many volunteer capacities in which he has served and continues to serve, others. A Millard Fillmore Hospital director for many years (predating his son’s involvement there) he continues on as an honorary director of the Foundation and the Kaleida Council.

“The YMCA has been a big part of my life,” says Nels. “I first joined it in 1926.” He was chairman of the downtown branch and still serves as a trustee of the organization. He holds dear, among many honors bestowed on him over the years, the Y’s Gold Key Award. Nels is also recipient of the Mechanical Contractors Association’s national Distinguished Service Award. A member of the Westminster Presbyterian Church since 1932, he has over the years served as deacon, elder and trustee. More recently he has acted as vice chair of the board for the Elizabeth Pierce Olmstead M.D. Center for the Visually Impaired (formerly The Blind Association), helping to guide their successful capital campaign. He has been described as a “stalwart, unassuming leader” by recipients of his generosity.

“This community has been good to me,” Nels says simply, in response to the question why—why all this activity, why not sit back and take it easy at this point in your life? “I have tried to guide my children in the direction of being community-minded, of being generous with their worldly goods, of helping people less well-off, without being dictatorial. I have tried to show them by my deeds and the way I’ve lived and I hope they believe.”

So they have—the Hopkins heritage lives on. Jane and Nels are the proud parents of three children—their son, who resides in Buffalo and two daughters, Robin H. Amper and Jane H. Carey, who live out of town. They have six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter, named after Jane. “We also have two fine sons-in-law and a wonderful daughter-in-law,” adds Nels.

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Nels and Jane’s 50th Anniversary with Nick, Robin and Janie.

It’s Nick who’s most closely followed Nels’ example though along quite a different career path. “I thought it’d be nice if he took over this company one day, but that was not to be,” Nels says. “Now I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Nick has been chief of neurosurgery for Kaleida Health (formerly Millard Fillmore Hospital) for 20 years and professor and chairman of neurosurgery/ professor of radiology at the State University of New York at Buffalo for 11 years. He shepherds a multi-disciplinary team of investigators conducting cutting-edge research in the field of stroke prevention and therapy. His efforts have resulted in the establishment of the Toshiba Stroke Research Center, a world-class facility located on SUNYAB’s South Campus.

In addition to seeing patients and teaching, Dr. Hopkins spends his days coordinating research activities at the center and “getting the word out” about their work. With the goal of creating a permanent endowment so the center can keep going, he travels around the world to speak and raise funds.

Nick traces his interest in medicine to a family tragedy. He had a sister who died at age 8 of a malignant tumor. Once he began studying, he found he liked the surgical discipline. “I was attracted to the incredible complexity of the nervous system. The brain is like the jewel in the crown—it’s the least understood, the most important and complex organ in the body—and we’re just beginning to understand it.”

In that sense, he is so clearly like his father—attracted to challenge. Nick speaks of his dad with a kind of awe: “The most important thing I’ve learned from my father is humility and perseverance—maybe perseverance first and then humility.

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Octogenarians snowmobiling in Wyoming.

“He’s always been an amazingly active community volunteer. In his own quiet way he’s a force in anything he does...He’s always taken a lesser role but become a major force...My son worked for him a few summers. He was so impressed how even though Grampy was retired, everyone still looked to him for leadership,” Nick remarked about his father.

In lives full of public postures and professional recognition, Nels and Nick both point to their children as their proudest achievements . Nick and his wife Bonnie have three children, Bob (father of the much-admired Jane and a soon-to-be-born sibling), Margie and Betsy—all of whom live in the New York City area. They reunite often, especially for family holidays.

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Nick and Bonnie’s children: L to R Margaret, Bob and Elizabeth.

Nick, Bonnie and their children climbing The Grand Teton, 1996.

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The Hopkins family at Nick and Bonnie’s daughter Margie’s marriage to Larry Whistler in October 1998.

For relaxation Nick and Bonnie ski, hike and play racquet sports. Nels and Jane spend five months of the year at their home on the Canadian shore, where he loves to sail.

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Nick and Bonnie Hopkins in Wyoming.

The Hopkins father and son both live in the City of Buffalo, near each other. Nick refers to his dad as “my best friend,” a tribute too few parents ever hear. Though they move in different professional circles, they remain close at heart and in spirit, cut from the same cloth, driven at once to succeed and help others do the same. You can call it the Hopkins heritage and know that Western New York is a better place for it.

Maria Scrivani is a freelance writer.


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