He also taught high school English and drama courses, and started a visual arts program in state prisons.
From his earliest days, Nicholas Shank was immersed in the arts. As a toddler, he pretended to play the piano on an old-fashioned radiator. By his teen years, he had become an accomplished organist who played at the Catholic Church he attended in Biwabik, Minn., and provided piano accompaniment for choral concerts at Horace Mann High School, where he starred in plays and from which he graduated in 1959.
"It was just in him," said his sister Mary Shank Swartz of Minneapolis. "He was a lover of the arts and appreciated all of it -- literature, music, drama and film."
His career took him to high schools and colleges, where he taught English and directed theatrical productions. He started a visual arts program in state prisons and most recently was director of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota.
Shank died of cancer March 26 at Solvay Hospice House in Duluth. He was 69.
He earned an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Minnesota Duluth and did graduate-level work at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. He taught English and directed plays at Duluth Cathedral High School in the 1960s, then moved to the College of St. Scholastica, also in Duluth.
"He was a wonderful teacher," said Sister Timothy Kirby, former head of Scholastica's Theater Department. "Students enjoyed having him. He was enthusiastic about his work, and he directed plays that were well done."
Shank also lent his talents to the Minnesota correctional system, where in the 1970s he started a rehabilitation program based in the visual arts, and then worked for the University of Minnesota Film Society, his sister said.
In 1985, Shank joined the University of Minnesota Art Department as an administrative assistant. In that role, he helped to write grants and to move the department into a position to add programs and faculty, said Wayne Potratz, former Art Department director.
"He was a consummate wordsmith and always knew what to say," Potratz said. "He was very dedicated."
Shank was named director of the Nash Gallery when it moved to the U's Regis Center for the Arts in 2003. Even after becoming sick this year, he continued to work half-days preparing for a show featuring works by faculty from all the University of Minnesota campuses scheduled for the fall.
He was on the board of the Twin Cities Fine Arts Association and was a strong supporter of local galleries, said association president Jason Inskip.
Known for his sharp sense of humor, Shank was a voracious reader who loved films and spending time with family and friends. He was most proud of piquing students' interest in the humanities, Shank Swartz said.
In addition to his sister Mary, he is survived by two other sisters, Jean Strah of Shawano, Wis., and Janet Zupetz of Gilbert, Minn.
Services have been held.