"I retired about two years ago," laughs the 91-year-old Nicholas S. Gentile Jr. '53. "Though, I'll tell you something," he quickly adds, "if somebody came along with a significant sized job, even though I'm an old man, and I walk like an old man, I'm ready to jump in and do it."
Gentile followed in the footsteps of his immigrant father and became a home builder.
Gentile's father, Nicholas S. Gentile Sr., was a four-year-old orphan when his older brother brought him from Italy to the U.S. He eventually worked as a cabinetmaker for Thomas Edison before starting a construction company with his brother. They planned to add to that a lumberyard in New Jersey that concentrated on the builder's trade. About nine months after the lumberyard was up and running, Gentile's uncle contracted tuberculosis and passed away, so his father closed the construction company to focus on the lumberyard–Pompton Lakes Building Supply Company.
"My dad was very successful like many people in that era," says Gentile. "They worked hard. They educated themselves. And my father was dead set on making sure I had a good education."
In high school, Gentile worked summers with his dad. "I unloaded freight cars," he says. "I always respected my father for starting me there because it made me understand what hard work was all about. And it made me respect manual laborers. They are such a key part of what makes up this country."
Gentile graduated high school in 1948. He says he worked hard in high school, but "mostly on extracurricular activities."
"In those days, they had people come to your house and talk to you," says Gentile. "There was a gentleman I'll never forget. His name was Mr. Timi." Mr. Timi was a recruiter from MIT. He told Gentile's parents, that if they sent their son to a college preparatory school, MIT would accept him. Gentile went to prep school, Peddie in Hightstown, New Jersey, but never reapplied to MIT.
"I remember when I was at Peddie, when my parents came down to visit, they always used to take me to Princeton for lunch," says Gentile. "That didn't impress me."
A dear friend of Gentile's, who was a wrestler at Lehigh, kept pushing him to apply there. "I had my dad take me up there," says Gentile, "and I fell in love with the place."
Gentile says he always wanted to work with his dad, that's why he majored in marketing and finance at what, at the time, would have been called the College of Business Administration at Lehigh University. During college breaks, his dad showed him the back-office side of the business.
"Lehigh is a very demanding institution, to put it mildly," says Gentile, who was elected president of the sophomore and senior classes and vice president of the junior class in his day. "It isn't easy. I think I had a lot of discipline inculcated into me by Lehigh, and I've always looked at it as a citadel of excellence. You were driven to do it right, and I've tried to do that in my life."
After college Gentile was drafted and served two years in the Army, just missing the Korean War which raged while he was in school.
Gentile helped grow his dad's business over the next few years. They got involved in manufacturing panelized homes and roof trusses. "We used to prefab the walls, so the windows were in the walls," explains Gentile. "We had a catalog line of homes that people could select from. Or we could do a custom-design." Your order would then get packaged panel-by-panel on a flatbed truck and delivered to your empty lot.
They even made large apartment complexes that way. "I always had the heart of an engineer in me," says Gentile. "I didn't have the intelligence, but I enjoyed setting things up and making them run efficiently. I've always enjoyed what I've done in life. That's important. I think that people should do what they want to do. And I did that."
In 1967, Gentile's father died and he took over as president.
Gentile grew the company, making collapsible pet kennels, an idea he successfully pitched to American Airlines, first out of wood and then vacuum-form plastic. He made wood floors for a steel shed manufacturer. He experimented making wooden closets that could collapsed and be shipped. At some point, the Navy contracted him to build industrial size containers they would use for overseas shipping. This was all in the quest of building up a manufacturing business to cover the losses the lumberyard sustained over the winter months. At their peak they had 45 employees.
"One of my big problems was, is, I let my ambition get ahead of my common sense and we grew too fast," says Gentile. "And then I kept concentrating on the P&L statement, forgetting that you needed a balance sheet to back it up."
Gentile says the business had a hard time keeping up when the economy went into a downturn in the 1980s. "Ultimately, I took our five-acre lumber operation, knocked it down, and built an 87-unit condominium complex," says Gentile. From then on, until he retired, Nick Gentile was in the construction business, building structures of all types throughout Bergen, Passaic and Morris counties in North Jersey.
"Then I did one of the proudest things I ever did in my life," says Gentile. "Six years later, I paid back every debt from the lumber company with interest. And that was something of a tribute to my dad because he was a very honest, hardworking individual."
In 1993, exactly 40 years after Gentile graduated from Lehigh, his daughter, Jenny, graduated magna cum laude from the College of Arts and Sciences. "As I sat in the arena watching her graduate, I looked back 40 years, thinking it would have been impossible for a woman to graduate in '53. And that was a terrible waste of human competence," remembers Gentile. Jenny's husband graduated in '92, her brother-in-law in '88, her father-in-law in '59 and Jennifer's brother Mark in ‘77.
"So we are a brown and white family," says Gentile with a laugh.
Pre-COVID, Gentile and his family were regular visitors to campus for reunions, sporting events and concerts. "I have rarely in my young lifetime seen so much money invested so well. I have a perspective of almost 70 years," says Gentile. "What Lehigh has done and what it's doing is outstanding. They've always been at the cutting edge. And that's something to be proud of."
As part of Flagpole Day awards, the outgoing senior class president (Web Dan '52, pictured right) presented the "Senior Cane" to the incoming senior class president (Nick Gentile '53, pictured left). The names of past presidents were inscribed on a spiraled silver band. Gentile recalls a new cane was provided for his class as the band on the original ran cane was full. The tradition ended sometime in the 1960s. Gentile has a 1953 estimate for a display case and an architectural drawing for the canes that was never built. He can't find anyone who knows where the canes are today.