Romance percolates over a cup of coffee

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A. Sue Weisler

Wilma and Thomas Nantka pose with the 1950 Techmila, which was RIT’s first yearbook with a photo on the cover. The photo featured Mary Lou Hawkins O’Connor ’50 and Thomas’ roommate, Clarence Hurtubise ’50, leaving for the 1950 winter dance. Thomas, the editor, wanted his girlfriend in the photo but a senior had to be featured, so he placed Wilma in the background looking out the window behind the couple. She was cropped out of the photo at the request of her dorm mother, who thought it was improper.

Wilma (Tessmann) Nantka ’52 (retail and interior design) was in RIT’s cafeteria in downtown Rochester having dinner with her girlfriends when she asked the waiter for coffee.

“Most of the girls said they wanted milk but I did want coffee,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Coffee.’ He said, ‘Milk?’ One thing they didn’t like to do was bring coffee.”

“It was extra work,” Thomas Nantka ’50 (printing and graphic arts) chimes in.

But Thomas made the extra effort and learned that Wilma was also a Buffalo native. He needed a date for a hayride in Buffalo that weekend, so he called Wilma’s dormitory, Kate Gleason Hall, and asked her out. In May, the couple celebrated 60 years of marriage.

Wilma says she enrolled at RIT because her father wanted her to go into business. With RIT’s co-op program, she could attend school for six weeks and then return to Buffalo and work in retail for six weeks to help pay for school.

Thomas had a scholarship to attend RIT’s printing and graphic design program. He quickly got involved with the RIT yearbook, Techmila, and was editor-in-chief of the award-winning 1950 edition.

That first date led to many more, including some formal dances hosted by sororities and fraternities and other school events. Shortly after Wilma graduated, they got engaged. They were married on May 23, 1953, in Buffalo with five RIT alumni in their wedding party.

They have been through a lot in their 60 years. Thomas was in the U.S. Navy Reserve during the Korean War, is a three-time cancer survivor and worked 40 years for a printing company in Buffalo and 13 years in the photo lab at Walmart. During his retirement, he became a self-taught stained-glass artist and has completed several pieces for a Buffalo senior living community. He also continues to do calligraphy.

Wilma worked in retail for a short time after graduation, was a stay-at-home mother to their three children, owned a consignment shop for hand-crafted work, is a member of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America, and was director of the creative arts/quilting program for the Erie County Fair.

Together they have visited all 50 states. They are both thankful they went away to college.

“We treasure our days at RIT. We got to know each other, date and become sweethearts,” Wilma says, smiling across the room at her husband. “We have many wonderful memories.”

About Tiger Love

There are more than 4,600 RIT alumni couples. Tiger Love is a new series that profiles some of them. If you have a suggestion of a Tiger couple to feature, email The University Magazine at