Nick Pitzen MPP'08

When the Keller Center, the new home to the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, has its grand opening in May, something special will be sitting at the gateway to the new facility. To many, it may just look like a nice place to take a seat. But to the class of 2008, and to those who look closely, it will commemorate a beloved friend who embodied the Harris spirit before his passing away six years ago.

Nick Pitzen’s friends describe him as gregarious, fun, engaging, complex, reliable, outgoing, curious, and, overall, brilliant. Some even say they wouldn’t have graduated without his help; he was especially talented in math, an important field for Harris’ quantitative focus. 

But Nick’s loyalty and generosity extended beyond the classroom. Jessica Besser-Rosenberg, one of Nick’s best friends from Harris, said he was the first one to help someone move or lend a hand with an economics question. 

After Nick passed, his Harris Public Policy classmates rallied together to raise money for a memorial bench to install on campus. They chose a bench because they wanted to do something permanent, and preferably something that could bring people together. That’s what Nick was so good at, after all.

He was the one who brought people together. He participated in Harris’ Follies variety show, hosted house parties, and made sure everyone felt they belonged when they were around him.

Happy times, 2008.

“Nick was important to a lot of people in our cohort, and many of us were grieving at his sudden passing at such an early age,” said Ben Dieterich, one of Nick’s classmates who helped organize the bench fundraiser. “We wanted a way to have something to work toward, and to focus our energy in such a way that would connect us to where we met and got to know Nick. The idea of a bench came up through conversations with Harris as they started to explore a new facility. We thought a bench would be a great thing we could go and see when alumni go back to visit – as a reminder of who Nick was and that relationship we had with him.”

That friendliness started when he was just a kid, according to his parents, Doris and John Pitzen.

In third or fourth grade, Doris told Nick he could invite four friends over for his birthday party. He ended up inviting six.

“I asked him why he invited two extra boys, and he said, ‘They don’t have any friends,’” Doris said. “How do you say no to a kid who was thinking of someone else?”

Another time, in high school, Nick came to the rescue of a smaller kid who was being bullied in the hallway.

“Nick wasn’t even really friends with him, but he didn’t like that these kids were bullying him,” Doris said. “So he walked right up to them, put one against the lockers and said, ‘Why are you making fun of him? Because he’s smarter than you?’ And that kid was never bullied again. He had a tendency to help those kids.”

In addition to being a great friend, those who knew Nick said he was a brilliant thinker who would have made huge difference as a member of the policy community for decades. After graduation, he was hired by Chicago Public Schools working on data analysis and research, with the hopes of effecting change and having a hand in ensuring high-quality education for the city’s young people.

John Pitzen addresses the Class of 2008 at Harris Connect Weekend 2018, with Doris Pitzen looking on.

Because of his very scientific, analytical mind, Nick’s friends and family agreed that if he knew about their efforts in installing this bench in his memory, he probably would have wondered what all the fuss was about.

Pitzen, with classmates.

“He’d roll his eyes and say, ‘Oh, man,’” John Pitzen said.

“‘Too much’ is exactly what I think his words would be,” said Dieterich with a laugh.

“He’d probably find a way to use the bench to bring folks together to celebrate some other thing, or – honestly – he’d probably make fun of it,” said Harin Contractor, a classmate who helped organize the bench fundraiser. “That’s just the way he was. He was always the lighter one among us.”

“He’d probably tell us to stop wasting our time with this — but lovingly,” said Besser-Rosenberg. “But the bench is for his friends, his family, the Harris community to remember and honor him.”

The bench in honor of Nick Pitzen is installed.

The Keller Center’s grand opening will be on May 3, over Harris Connect Weekend, and the unveiling of Nick Pitzen’s bench will take place a couple of weeks earlier, on April 12. Coincidentally, Nick’s roommate during his time at Harris is getting married that weekend, giving the Class of 2008 all the more reason to come together.

Contractor said, “It’s going to be a great weekend in terms of not only closing out this process with the bench, but marking a new beginning.”

RSVP here for the Pitzen Bench Unveiling on April 12.