During his lifetime, Samuel C. Nickle participated in oil exploration across Canada and around the world, became the chief executive officer of seven companies, and established a major philanthropic foundation. However, it was to The University of Calgary that he turned on his 81 st birthday, then he was looking for a way to express to the Calgary and Alberta communities his appreciation for the opportunities he had found here. On November 23, 1970, he announced the donation of one million dollars to the university for the construction of "a building that will contribute to the education and overall benefit of both students and community at large, by including facilities for the maintenance and display of works of art, artifacts, archaeology and numismatics".
In a sense, Sam Nickle's story, and hence that of the building of the Nickle Arts Museum, began in 1842 with the Irish potato famine. It was that crisis which brought his grandparents to North America-to the pioneer village of Thamesville in what is now Ontario. Sam's father was a custom shoemaker who followed the routes of the early railroads to practise his trade, eventually settling in Philadelphia where Sam was born on November 23, 1889. The family moved on to Detroit and then to Winnipeg where Sam finished his schooling and began his working life-first as a bank clerk and grain company clerk and later as assistant in his father's retail shoe business.
While the family lived in Winnipeg, Sam met Olga Simonson, also of a pioneering family. A concert violinist and winner of a Governor-General's Award, she passed up a scholarship to study music for two years in Brussels, Belgium in order to marry Sam in 1912. She had decided to make her life in the West and later devoted her musical talents to organising and performing in Calgary's philharmonic orchestra.
Shortly after Sam and Olga's wedding, the entire Nickle family moved briefly to Los Angeles where Sam saw First World War Service in the United States Coast Guard. Rejoining the family in Calgary, he entered the shoe business with his father, operating the Nickle Boot Shops. Later Sam established his own store, the Slipper Shop, on 8th Avenue.
He first caught the "oil bug" in the 1920's, investing in oil exploration in the Turner Valley and Athabasca areas. Exploration methods in those days were crude,elevating the degree of risk to the level of a gamble. The booms and busts of the period made many more empty pockets than fortunes, but Sam Nickle had developed "an itch" that would never leave him. When the shoe business became a casualty of the Great Depression, Sam supported his family as a distributor for Quebec-made canned pea soup and for home-study accounting and business courses. His son Carl recalled that the pea soup was a mainstay in the family diet during the early '30's. With Bob Brown's major Turner Valley oil discovery in 1936, Sam Nickle decided to forsake his former business interests and devote his career to oil exploration.
Using his Turner Valley leases as collateral, he formed Northend Petroleums and raised capital across the continent to drill several wells. In 1941 one of his wells was drilled to a depth of two miles, at the time the deepest oil well in the British Empire. Raising capital for such ventures at this early stage in Alberta's oil history was sometimes more difficult than the actual drilling. Sam literally wore holes in the soles of his shoes doing the rounds in New York and Toronto looking for backers. As he pounded the pavement, it must have occurred to him more than once that if he had stayed in the shoe business he would at least have had properly soled footwear.
In 1944 when he had established a financial base and a reputation in the oil business, he founded Anglo American Oils and ventured into oil exploration in Nova Scotia. Then, ahead Of most of the industry, he started acquiring mineral rights in Saskatchewan and Manitoba prior to the discoveries that turned Saskatchewan into an important oil province in the 1950's. In 1953 he put all his resources on the line to finance the purchase of the refinery and marketing system built by the late A.H. Mayland.
Like the western Canadian oil industry as a whole, Sam Nickle's ventures had their ups and downs. Indeed, he did not achieve independent wealth until he was 70 years of age. Past the age at which most men retire, he continued building and finally merged his businesses into Canadian Gridoil Limited.
As he reached his 80th birthday, he began to plan a major philanthropic gesture to the Calgary community. Impressed with the increasing role of the U of C in the community, as well as by its growing academic stature, he decided to donate one million dollars to the university's special building fund for the construction of an arts museum. This amount was matched by the Alberta government.
At the U of C Spring Convocation in 1971, Samuel C. Nickle was awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of his community service. Shortly afterward, on June 28, he died at the age of 81, just as planning was beginning for the building that now bears his family name.
The Nickle Arts Museum is the first building at U of C to be constructed as the result of a private donation.
From: The University of Calgary Gazette, January 18, 1979
Portrait by Nicholas de Grandmaison, collection of The Nickle Arts Museum
Biographical notes on Carl O. Nickle