Their arenas are different ones. Jeri Nims has shown herself again and again to be a particularly generous benefactress in the arts and education, especially where the two endeavors meet: at University of New Orleans, The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts/Riverfront, Magnolia School and many other sites. Doug Thornton, meanwhile, devoted his considerable talents to keeping the Super Bowl in New Orleans and fulfilling the long-awaited dream of bringing an NBA franchise back to town. In their own ways, each filled niches that needed to be filled -- and they created opportunities that will continue to unfold for years to come. For their devotion to the future of the city, Jeri Nims and Doug Thornton are Gambit Weekly's New Orleanians of the Year for 2002.
For Jeri Nims, the greatest joy comes from using her fortune to build new opportunities in education and the arts.
By Constance Adler
The aptly named Lucky Coin Machine Company has proven to be a source of good fortune for many people. When Bob Nims started his modest jukebox leasing business in 1945 with two machines, one of which smashed to pieces as he was moving it off the truck, he and his wife, Jeri, probably didn't imagine that one day Lucky Coin would grow to such giant proportions that they could endow $1.2 million to the University of New Orleans to create an 84,000-square-foot facility at Elmwood Park, dedicated as the Robert E. Nims Center for Entertainment, Amusement, and Multi-Media Industries. Or that they would give $300,000 to the Magnolia School, a residence and vocational facility for developmentally disabled students, to build the Jeri and Robert Nims Recreation Center. Or that NOCCA students would enjoy a brand-new Nims Black Box Theater.
The couple began to make these and other generous donations to support theater and arts education a number of years ago. They chose to support the entertainment arts because Bob Sims, before he became a coin-operated amusement machine magnate, had a career as a musician. (He played the accordion at the Old Absinthe House; his accordion enjoys a place of honor in UNO's Elmwood facility.)
After Bob Nims died in February 2000, Jeri Nims continued this support of the arts, most recently with a gift valued at $10 million to UNO, the largest programmatic gift to the university in its history. This endowment will create the Jeri Nims School of the Arts to coordinate the university's programs in fine arts, theater, film, communications, music and jazz. A portion of the endowment will also provide 20 new scholarships.
"What Jeri and Bob have done and what Jeri has continued to do on her own is to enhance our performing arts and film education to an extraordinary degree," says UNO Chancellor Gregory O'Brien. "That kind of support for the arts is hard to come by, but the Nims gift has enabled us to create this new school so the students can prepare for the changing business of entertainment with this sophisticated equipment. In addition, this gift opens the way for professional film productions such as Runaway Jury to come to UNO for the use of our facility. Over $100 million in new film industry has come to New Orleans because of this generous gift."
Although it was Jeri Nims who received the honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters at a UNO graduation ceremony last month, she says she sat on the stage and thought to herself, "Bob, this is your degree." Says Mrs. Nims: "This is Bob's work turned into a legacy. I am doing this so his work can do what he intended, which was to help people. We are keeping his spirit alive with these gifts."
At something just shy of 5 feet in height, Jeri Nims is the quality of woman that in decades past one would refer to as a "pip" -- a slang word referring to something or someone wonderful. When she was born in Ponchatoula on Oct. 28, 1926, her mother gave her the name of Myrtis. As soon as possible, she re-named herself Jeri, which seemed to suit her destiny much better. So it would be a "Jeri" who won the 1948 Louisiana State Jitterbug Championship and who performed as a contortionist and a dancer on Royal Street for the Parisian Room's Sunday Jazz Jamboree.
"Oh I am proud of my dancing," Nims says. "It was such a big part of my life." She learned to tap dance by watching Ann Miller movies. When she jitterbugged with her dance partner Jules Malan, she would sometimes lift him onto her shoulders and throw him into a split. "Jules was small, and I am strong. People can't believe how strong I am," explains Nims, who weighed 94 lbs. back then and now, at age 76, doesn't appear to be much more than that. "I've never backed off from a challenge."
This self-taught contortionist demonstrated precocity for acrobatics as a 7 year old. When she got to be older, she entertained French Quarter habitues by bending over backward and gazing at her audience from between her own legs. She danced professionally until the age of 24 at various clubs in town such as the Blue Room at the Fairmont Hotel. During the day she worked at two or more bookkeeping jobs for which she had been trained during her one year of classes at the Soulé Business School. Prior to that, her education had taken place at the Metairie High School and the Sacred Heart School.
"That's the Sacred Heart School on Canal Street, not the Sacred Heart Academy on St. Charles," Nims clarifies. "They're very different. Oh, but that Academy of the Sacred Heart is wonderful. What a beautiful education they give them over there!"
As it happens, the Academy on St. Charles Avenue is another beneficiary, with a new fine arts center thanks to Jeri Nims. But it is the Sacred Heart School that Nims remembers with such fondness; it was there that she received the Sacrament of Confirmation. Nims attends Mass regularly, serves as a Eucharistic Minister at her church, St. Matthew the Apostle, and is a member of the Holy Name Society. She also visits her husband's grave (which she always refers to as his "new home") in Lake Lawn Cemetery twice a week. She sits and meditates on the various concerns she has had to grapple with alone since he died.
"Usually it has something to do with the business, some decision I have to make," she says. "I go there and think about it and ask Bob's advice. When I leave, I feel confident. I get the encouragement I need."
Jeri was 17 years old when she met her future husband; he used to drive her to school. She brought him home to meet her family at Sunday dinner a few times, but then she lost track of him for a while. Bob was busy learning the coin-operated-amusement-machine leasing trade and had apprenticed himself to A.M. Amusement Co., (a company he later bought) for a time before starting his own Lucky Coin Machine Co. So it wasn't until the early 1950s that Jeri's and Bob's paths crossed again. As luck would have it, Jeri found his office was two blocks from where she worked as bookkeeper for Motion Pictures Advertising. ("Now, that's fate!" observes Mrs. Nims.) One thing led to another, and next thing you know she's doing his books on the side.
"I quit my job and started working for him full time when he could afford to pay me full time," she says. Lucky Coin was a slim operation back then; there were only two other employees besides her. Apparently she kept his books so well that Bob married her a year and a half later. "We were so compatible, and then we grew on each other," Mrs. Nims says.
The two were more than husband and wife; they were also business partners. Jeri Nims is the president of the mortgage company RDM Corporation, which the couple created as a branch venture from Lucky Coin. In fact, she could probably be given as much credit for building their company as her husband, even though she might be reluctant to take that credit. "Bob was my role model. He taught me very well in this business," she says, adding that she used to sit in his office and just listen to him talk on the phone, making deals and soothing customers. "He tried to teach me patience and tolerance. And he always worked in the customer's best interest."
She must have been a quick study, because even Jeri Nims allows that as a business team, she and her husband did very well, primarily because they had such different styles of working. "Bob was compassionate and never got angry, but I was the opposite. He was the easy one. I was the tough one. I used to tell him, 'Bob, I think you're going to get to heaven faster. You're a better person.' He'd say, 'I have to agree with you.' I did not have Bob's popularity, but I was not running a popularity contest -- this is a business. I am very frank, but I don't hold grudges. But you see, we balanced each other. We got along perfectly."
Now that the business phase of her life is closing out -- she has sold her interest in Lucky Coin and works as a consultant to the new owner -- Jeri Nims seems to win popularity contests effortlessly. "Jeri Nims is certainly Woman of the Year here at UNO," says Gregory O'Brien. "She is an absolute joy to be with. She has been wonderful to the UNO community, and she just fell in love with our students."
As O'Brien and others have noted, one of Jeri Sims' outstanding talents is that she has a gift for having fun. She was having fun jitterbugging in the French Quarter while she worked three jobs to keep body and soul together. Then she had fun in her long marriage to Bob while they gradually built their fortune. And now she's having fun giving away large pieces of that fortune. But what seems to be most fun for her is watching what this fortune helps to create in the schools.
"Oh those children! Talented! They did the Shakespeare in that theater," marvels Jeri Nims, referring to the NOCCA students and their Nims Black Box Theater. "Every time they do a show, I buy a ticket and go see it."
Joan Turcotte-Dodd, the chancellor of the Magnolia School, says that Nims has a remarkable ability to follow through on her gifts and see them unfold in the lives of the people she wants to help. "Jeri Nims comes often to our school, and it is so touching to see how she is able to participate with our students. She just gets right in there with them. Not everyone can do that. But she is so natural and warm. I am happy to be a friend of hers."
"When people ask me what do I get in return for all this, I always say I get family," says Nims, who adds that she and her husband didn't have children of their own. "So when I visit the Magnolia School, I hug them and I kiss them -- they are such a joy to me. Then I go home and think, 'Am I lucky!'"
Major League Results
In his efforts to keep the Super Bowl in New Orleans and bring the Hornets to town, Doug Thornton proved himself a tireless worker with a vision for sports in the city.
By Frank Etheridge
For Doug Thornton, the defining moment of a remarkable 2002 came on New Year's Eve, 2001. Thornton had assembled in the Superdome's boardroom a who's who of local business and political leaders, including Mayor Marc Morial, Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon, state Reps. Mitch Landrieu and Ed Murray, state Sen. Ken Hollis, Entergy's Dan Packer, and MetroVision's Bill Hines. The media never picked up on the meeting -- strange, considering the power consolidated in that one room.
By the fall of 2001, closure was finally being reached in one of that year's most prolonged stories: the Saints and the state mapping out a deal that would keep the local NFL franchise here long term by creating revenue streams similar to those enjoyed by other teams. Thornton played a huge role in supplying the state, essentially the client of his company, Spectacor Management Group (SMG), with the nuts and bolts of a financial package that could work for both sides. The governor's office and the Saints reached a deal, with the state paying annual inducements to the team, starting at $12.5 million per year and escalating to $23.5 million by 2010. The deal impressed Charlotte Hornets co-owner Ray Woolridge, who was actively looking for another home for the Hornets following a June 2001 referendum in which Charlotte voted down a new arena for the team. Right after the state and Saints signed a memorandum of understanding, Thornton received a call from Woolridge.
Within days, Thornton met with Woolridge and then-Gov. Mike Foster's Chief of Staff Stephen Perry over dinner at Commander's
Palace. They spent hours discussing what it would take to bring the NBA back to town, with Woolridge demanding a Jan. 10 deadline for a deal to be reached. It was crunch time.
"Really what we were trying to do was get the political and business leadership together in one room and present the template of what the team was going to require to move here," Thornton, 44, recalls from his office on the Plaza Level of the Superdome. His taut frame reveals his former days as a quarterback and belies a hint of gray in his black hair. "After going through the presentation, we basically said to them, 'The Hornets' owners are prepared to come to town a week from now, but they don't want to come unless we want to do the deal. You represent the people who are going to help us do it. If there's no appetite for it, fine. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance; we're not going to get another one.
"Everybody voted for it, it was unanimous in the room that we as a community should pursue it. Everyone felt it was very important to the development of the Arena, the whole re-imaging of New Orleans, and the economic renaissance happening here."
After the Superdome summit, Thornton felt for the first time that the deal could be done. "That New Year's Eve meeting was a real watershed moment in bringing the Hornets to New Orleans," he says. "I called Ray later that day and said, 'You're on.'"
It wasn't just the Hornets deal that defined 2002 for Thornton. The year began for him with the city hosting a Super Bowl under the most trying of circumstances in post-9/11 America. Next came the political battles of legislative approval for the Saints and Hornets in March; the deals, approved in a special session, were orchestrated in large part by Thornton. The Hornets' arrival brought about a frenzied upgrade of the Arena that continued up to the Hornets debut with an Oct. 30 opening night victory over the Utah Jazz, a symbolic win over the franchise that left the city 23 years ago. Balanced between these highlights is Thornton's exhaustive day-to-day schedule of maintaining the Superdome and Arena.
"Doug and I have been in literal wars together on various issues this year," says Perry, president of the New Orleans Convention & Visitor's Bureau since August. "And if there's anybody else you want with you in the trenches, it's Doug. He has such a high energy level. These negotiations that would go for hours and hours and hours; Doug would be there and stay upbeat and responsive through it all."
Perry credits Thornton's ability to balance politics and logistics as "a heck of an asset." Says Perry: "You can always count on Doug. He has a great work ethic; he works more hours than anyone I know. ... He's a key part of the tourism industry, the sports industry, and part of every single economic development and business discussion."
Thornton's circuitous rise to prominence in the local sports community began in his prep days at Shreveport's Woodlawn High School. The school is famous for having produced such legendary quarterback talents as Johnny Booty, Joe Ferguson and Terry Bradshaw. Thornton was on track to be the next in this distinguished lineage, signing a football scholarship with McNeese State University. He played sparingly in a few varsity games as a freshman, but his career was cut short when Thornton, a two-sport athlete, tore a knee ligament rounding third base in baseball practice that spring. With the hindsight of five knee operations, he says, "Maybe injuring my knee was a blessing. Playing sports up to then was all I cared about. After that I got serious about school and my future."
Thornton graduated from McNeese State in Dec. 1980, and moved to Houston to take a job with Pennzoil, beginning a 16-year career in the oil industry. "At that time, being from Shreveport and Louisiana, the oil business was really hot," Thornton says. "Lots of my friends were in the oil business, and petroleum land management was a hot area to get into."
Thornton started out as a "land man," researching properties and arranging for leases and purchases of land for drilling and exploration. He earned a degree in petroleum land management from the University of Houston at night over two years, and his career path eventually led him to New Orleans in 1984 with Transco Energy. In 1988 he joined Taylor Energy as vice president. In that same year, Thornton became involved with the Young Leadership Council and worked to form a subcommittee dubbed Sports Vision. This group, led by Mike Millay, eventually led Thornton into the sports business when Millay hatched the idea of hosting the 1992 U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in City Park's Tad Gormley Stadium.
The challenge: Tad Gormley didn't have a track. Based on ambitious proposals, New Orleans received the bid to host the trials -- with a $1 million penalty if the funding to renovate the stadium and build the track didn't materialize. Millay and Thornton eventually formed the New Orleans Sports Foundation (the "Greater" was later added), which succeeded in building the track at a price tag of more than $8 million. The group now solicits Super Bowls, Final Fours and other sporting events for the city.
Thornton's efforts in renovating Tad Gormley impressed Jimmie Phillips, vice president and general manager of WWL-TV. The station began working with Thornton in his efforts to raise money for the project, producing and running a public-service announcement campaign for the track. "I saw the energy and effort he put into it," Phillips remembers. "It was a volunteer project, a huge one, and I was just so impressed with him. So steady, so committed; he just stuck with it until it was done."
Phillips cites the same attributes in making Thornton's 2002 a success. "Doug was a huge hand in securing the Hornets. He was really the one that made it happen. Of course, he's more interested in the outcome than getting credit for it. He's always in the background."
In 1994, the post-Olympic trials Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation was suffering. Thornton's good friend Millay accepted a sports job with Walt Disney's Wide World of Sports, and the board asked Thornton to take over leadership of the group. After much inner debate, and a promise by newly elected Mayor Marc Morial to support the group's efforts, including a $350,000 economic development grant from the city, Thornton accepted the job.
His immersion into the sports world was immediate. Thornton and Morial flew to New York City to meet with NBA Commissioner David Stern, who, after scolding the city for the botched deal to bring the Minnesota Timberwolves to town, provided a blueprint for landing a NBA franchise. Thornton would follow Stern's advice for near-success with the Vancouver Grizzlies (now in Memphis) in 2000, and eventually the Hornets.
Thornton switched gears in 1997 when he accepted his current position with SMG. He would remain part of efforts to bring the NBA to town, but Thornton now had a job that required him to manage not only the Superdome and Arena, but also the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium and the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Thornton's reputation as a tireless worker with a vision for the community also surfaced during efforts to keep the Super Bowl in New Orleans. Gambit Weekly praised Thornton's efforts in orchestrating a Super Bowl that was held amidst the chaos of its designation of a National Special Security Event ("Bowled Over," Feb. 12, 2002). Thornton dubbed the Super Bowl "the most difficult event we've ever been a part of."
New Orleans wowed the world with Super Bowl XXXVI, and the year that followed proved how much sports can mean for the city. The Super Bowl's estimated economic impact locally was $390 million; the impact of the Hornets and Saints is harder to gauge. But Thornton is well aware of the results. "Look at what the Superdome has done for New Orleans," he says. "Billions and billions of dollars. Super Bowls, concerts, papal visits, Final Fours, all that."
But even more, Thornton feels the deals successfully completed with the Saints and Hornets speak volumes about the future of the city.
"From an economic standpoint, the teams project a positive image for the city," he says. "Heck, is this the best economic environment to relocate a franchise? Probably not. But rather than say we can't do it, the leadership of this town stood up and said, 'We can do it.' It's that attitude that will help New Orleans rebound on a national level. As a tourism destination, we need positive exposure. Sports bring that. You have the NBA and NFL? You're a major-league city."
And in large part thanks to Doug Thornton's efforts in 2002, New Orleanians can say just that.