By People Staff
September 15, 1997 12:00 PM

TIM WILBORN IS A 6’2″, 250-LB. 17-year-old from a crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Gertrude Nielsen, widow of the marketing-research whiz who gave his name to the system that measures TV viewership, is a frail centenarian who lives in a Tudor mansion in the posh Chicago suburb of Winnetka. “If someone saw us together,” says Wilborn, “they’d probably think, ‘Ah! He’s attacking that woman!’ ”

If anything, it was Nielsen who went on the offensive. She challenged Wilborn, then a C-average 10th grader at Chicago’s King High School, to stay out of trouble and graduate on time. If he did, she promised, she would pay his college tuition. “Tim told me he wanted to be a businessman,” says Nielsen, recalling the day she made the offer. “And I thought he would make a good one.”

It all started at a March 1995 luncheon for Imagine Chicago, a nonprofit organization that pairs inner-city youth with potential mentors. The program’s founder seated Gertrude next to Wilborn, who, thanks to a summer groundskeeping job, shared her passion for hibiscus blooms. On a later visit to Nielsen’s home for an interview assignment, Wilborn, who lives with his mother, Valarie, 34, a homemaker, and brother Larry, 15, in the housing project where he grew up, got the offer that changed his life. Not surprisingly, he was skeptical: “I’m thinking, ‘This woman is, like, 97 years old. Who’s to say she’s even going to remember me the next time she sees me?’ ”

In the end, Nielsen not only made good on her offer—she has committed $60,000 to Wilborn’s college tuition—she made a friend as well. Wilborn is now attending Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and phones Nielsen regularly. But he still can’t fathom his good fortune. Nielsen, who turned 100 on July 29, has been a philanthropist for more than 50 years (her husband died in 1980) and says she was impressed with Wilborn’s community-volunteer record. The rest she credits to her grandmother’s gardening advice: “When I was 5 or 6, she gave me nasturtium seeds and told me, ‘Whatever you plant, you take care of.’ ”