An appreciation of one professor’s kindness, guidance, and wit.
By Sundiata Rush
The Penn community lost a beloved steward with the recent passing of Nicholas Constan L’64. Though I was deeply saddened to hear the news, the sorrow was chased by bright reflections on his character.
During my time at the University, he was a popular Wharton professor and spirited administrator and presidential assistant who had an innate talent for relating to others. I’m sure I speak for countless former students and colleagues in expressing great appreciation for his help, mentoring, and friendship.
Mr. Constan was a deft joker. He had a knack for making you smile. His spry, quirky humor was often weaved into casual conversation. Even if you spoke with him for just a minute, he’d find a way to prompt a giggle or garner a laugh. When he greeted you, it was usually followed by a colorful or funny remark. In fact, his greetings were often jokes themselves. And sparks of scholarly humor were standard fare in his legal studies courses. Considering that he taught for 45 years, there are tons of alums who’ve surely been tickled by his punchlines.
Having played football as a running back for Penn, I especially remember his support of our team and other student-athletes—not only coming to practices and games, but also advising and assisting with academic quests. In my freshman year, he shepherded my transfer to Wharton from the Engineering School and steered me toward a concentration that aligned with my natural interests. And I know of several peers he helped in similar ways, including navigating classes to best manage course loads while in season, and getting tutors to assist with subjects that were difficult. If Penn has not hung an honorary Quaker sports jersey emblazoned with his name, it should.
Chats with the professor were often breezy, yet intriguing. His interests, insights, and views on all manner of topics—cultural, academic, or otherwise—were robust. He reveled in good discourse, especially when the subject was Penn. Speaking of which, he seemed to know everybody on campus. Like, everybody. You’d be talking to him on Locust Walk on a typical weekday and marvel at how he acknowledged nearly half the passersby, responding to their friendly gestures and comments with a cheerful head nod or wave, all while he kept a dedicated focus on you. Rarely missing a beat. Never shortchanging the dialogue.
Perhaps his most indelible trait was empathy. He truly and authentically cared about helping and uplifting others. With this combination of kindness, guidance, and wit, it’s no surprise that many casually referred to him as Uncle Nick.
During my senior year in 1992, I was having a standout season on our surging, motivated team—which was forging a winning record under new head coach Al Bagnoli after the previous year’s losing campaign—when heartbreak cut my collegiate career short. I broke my ankle against Harvard in the second-to-last game of the season, my last at Franklin Field. The following day a HUP surgeon affixed a metal plate to my fibula bone as part of a long road of rehab and recovery.
After the surgery, Nick Constan was one of the very first people outside of family who came to visit me in the hospital. And he gave me a gift that day that I’ll always treasure. It was a book titled Sundiata—my namesake, the renowned 13th-century Emperor of Mali, whose essence is associated with the power and grace of a lion.
What was extra special about his gift was that I already had a couple other books with that title, but, remarkably, this was a new one—one I hadn’t seen before. Indeed it had only just come out that year, copyright 1992. It’s a colorful book, with large illustrations in a distinctive cut-paper style accompanying the text.
On the inside cover, Mr. Constan had written a message that synced with the story of the Sundiata legend, which relates to courage, determination, and achieving goals amidst great odds. It read:
To Sundiata, a man with “a heart full of kindness” with a hope that soon “the lion is walking!” —Nick Constan
His visit and gift were a tremendous boost to my mood at the time. Like a ray of light in a thick fog. I’ll never forget it.
After graduating, I’d connect with the professor from time to time when I visited campus for an event, alumni gathering, or game. We’d chat and catch up on goings-on at Penn. He’d ask how life was treating me and offer help with any career or networking stuff if I needed it. Mr. Constan enjoyed rowing, and on occasion I’d run into him on Boathouse Row when I went for a jog or stroll along Kelly Drive. With each interaction, there was that familiar, joke-wrapped greeting again. That lively dialogue and banter. That dedicated focus and care. Whether on or off campus, he was always up to the same thing: sparking a smile, helping a friend, or just loving on Penn.
On my bookshelf, I still have that treasure he gave me way back when. And every time I see it, read it, or reflect on how I got it, it’s an inspiration.
Thank you, Uncle Nick.
May your spirit and light live on.
Sundiata Rush W’93 is a marketing consultant and mentor who lives in Atlanta. He was the Penn football team’s captain and MVP in 1992 as well as a first team All-Ivy performer.