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Nunemaker, Irene

Year Inducted: 
Irene Nunemaker
  • Major philanthropist and benefactress of the University of Kansas
  • Self-made New York cosmetics industry executive
  • 1952: Products Director for Avon
  • Namesake of Nunemaker Hall, the Honors building, and provided $1 million for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
  • Donated over $2 million to 6 major projects across the country, including the Topeka YWCA 

“My business aim has been two-fold,” Irene Nunemaker quoted in a 1992 news release.  “First, use whatever talent you have to always earn the money you receive.  And second, if you prosper, give some of it back to humanity.”  Irene Nunemaker certainly lived these concepts.  From an in-debt college graduate, to a self-made New York cosmetics industry executive, to one of the greatest philanthropists the University of Kansas has ever had, Ms. Nunemaker is a true example of a success story and a role model for women everywhere on how to make success happen for oneself.  “Women can’t do ­all things,” she said.  “They can just about do it all, but not quite!”

Ms. Nunemaker graduated from the University of Kansas in 1922 with a BA in Journalism.  She began writing and editing for the bride’s news and cosmetics sections in household magazines at Capper Publications in Topeka, KS under the pen name of Kay Farrell.  She was ready to move on after a six-month night school on cosmetics in New York City.  In 1939, she joined Avon products, then an up-and-coming cosmetics company.  She earned her position on the staff of the Avon Outlook, the publication mailed out to field saleswomen, after she created a whole sample issue, wrote and laid out and completely ready to go to press, over the holidays.  She continued for 14 years in the sales promotion department, until 1952, when she was named Avon’s new Products Director.  In this position, she decided what the company needed and worked directly with the chemists for ten years, deciding what products Avon would offer.

After Ms. Nunemaker’s work with Avon, she moved on to become a freelance industry consultant and continued to advance in the business world, becoming a pioneer for women in the marketplace.  She became the Vice President of Dorothy Perkins Cosmetics, Inc.; for this company she developed the company’s entire line, including packaging and promotion, all in 15 months.  Her cosmetics industry expertise also garnered her acclaim when she created a national fragrance testing panel.  “You have to prove what you can do.  You have to be your own force,” she explained. 

It is even more impressive then, that her monetary donations have been completely from what she earned over years of hard work.  She performed all her own finances, wisely bought stocks, and used what money she made and saved to give back to communities she cared about.  Among her list of large donations include: $435,000 in 1966 for a hospital facility at Topeka Presbyterian Manor with 36 private rooms, dedicated to her mother; $3000 in 1968 for a hospitality room for visiting families with a desk, oven, and refrigerator at the Leonardville, KS nursing home; $320,000 in 1973 for Nunemaker Center at Holmes, New York Presbyterian Center, which is a year-round facility camp and conference grounds used for youth groups, school camping trips, and summer camps for mentally and physically handicapped children; $300,000  in 1977 to Nunemaker Place, a Salt Lake City religious and cultural center for students of Westminster College and ecumenical center for Mormon churches; and $350,000 to the Agape Center in 1983, also at the Holmes Presbyterian Center.  She contributed $250,000 to the Topeka YWCA for the Nunemaker Women’s Service Center in 1986; for this, she was named the Topeka Capitol-Journal “Kansan of the Year.”  If this was not already awe-inspiring, she created a $50,000 endowment for each building for maintenance and upkeep to make sure they continued to serve future generations.  In a January 1987 newspaper article, she joked, “I’m semi-retired; that’s all because of the connections with my buildings.”

Chancellor Gene Budig described Nunemaker as “a most generous and valued friend,” who “strengthened [CLAS] immeasurably.”  At the University of Kansas, her gifts have included a $1 million unrestricted gift for the KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Nunemaker Center building, which holds the University’s Honors Program.  Nunemaker Center was built in 1971 with a $415,000 donation.  Ms. Nunemaker was involved in all aspects of the design process, and the Center won the Burlington House Design Award for its unique architecture.  She has also been a member of the KU Endowment Association Board of Trustees, the KU Alumni Association, a Museum of Art Patron, and the Chancellor’s Club.  She received KU’s Distinguished Service Citation, the highest honor bestowed by KU, in 1969.  James L. Muyskens, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1992, declared “Beyond a doubt, the most exciting day for me as Dean of CLAS was when Irene Nunemaker dramtically expressed her confidence in the College and in a Liberal Arts education.”

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