Frank C. Nicholas, 89; headed Beech-Nut Corp.

Posted: June 24, 2009

Frank C. Nicholas, 89, of Villanova, a former Beech-Nut Corp. chairman, died of complications from dementia Friday at home.

In 1973, Mr. Nicholas and two associates bought Beech-Nut Foods Corp. As company president and chairman, Mr. Nicholas announced in 1977 that salt and most of the sugar from Beech-Nut strained foods and juices for infants would be eliminated and launched a campaign advertising that Beech-Nut products were free of preservatives, flavor enhancers, and artificial colors.

There was medical evidence that salt could cause high blood pressure in later life and sugar could be a cause of obesity and health problems, he told an Inquirer reporter in 1979. He added: "We had the sense that the market was looking for something that was natural and good for babies." Sales figures proved him right. That year he sold the company to Nestle.

In 1988 Beech-Nut was fined and executives were convicted of criminal fraud for knowingly selling apple juice that was essentially sugared water. According to court records, the problem began in the late 1970s when Beech-Nut switched suppliers for its apple juice concentrate. Mr. Nicholas, company president at the time, told a reporter in 1988 that he had known nothing about the phony juice.

Mr. Nicholas went on to own Optopics Laboratories in Fairton, N.J., an ophthalmic solutions firm, and then owned Quaker Safety Products, a manufacturer of protective clothing for firefighters. He retired in the mid-1990s.

Mr. Nicholas grew up in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Forces as a navigator in the China-Burma-India Theater and "flew the hump" over the Himalayas. He and his crew once bailed out of a disabled plane, his son Frank III said, and hiked for 13 days to safety in Burma.

Mr. Nicholas, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross, never spoke publicly about his heroics, his son said. Instead, he told a reporter in 1977 that his most memorable feat in the service was navigating an airplane 350 miles off course.

After his discharge, Mr. Nicholas earned a bachelor's degree and a law degree from Northwestern School of Law. He practiced law for a few years in Chicago, then had a succession of sales and marketing jobs in Chicago and New York. In the mid-1950s he purchased a 250-acre farm in Hilltown, Bucks County, and practiced law in the county before buying Beech-Nut.

He and his wife, Elizabeth Stewart Nicholas, operated a business dealing in structural antiques such as vintage English phone booths. They enjoyed vacationing in Maine, where they designed and built a home incorporating part of their collection.

Mr. Nicholas served on the board of Germantown Academy and had chaired the parents committee at Lehigh University. He established scholarships at both schools and at Northwestern University School of Law.

In addition to his wife of 36 years and his son, Mr. Nicholas is survived by a daughter, Siobhan Welsh; sons Casey, Jeffrey, Scott, and Peter; 12 grandchildren; and his former wife, Carol Nicholas

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. tomorrow at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1000 W. Main St., Lansdale. Mr. Nicholas donated his body to science.

Memorial donations may be made to Northwestern University School of Law for the Frank C. Nicholas Scholarship Fund, 375 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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