Dr. William T. “Tom” Nichols, a longtime community columnist for The Times, died Wednesday in New Castle, Pa. at age 86.
Nichols, a Florida native and decorated World War II veteran, moved to Gainesville in 2000 after a career as a college professor. For many years, he shared with Times’ readers his views on history, politics, education, social trends and his own community activities. He offered keen insight and a joy for life and his adopted hometown that shone through in his writing.
We offer condolences to the Nichols family and share fond memories of this wonderful gentleman. As a tribute, we offer the following excerpts from a few of his columns.
July 19, 2010: On the eve of World War II, I journeyed with my maternal grandparents on a train ride from central Florida to Virginia. We would be staying in the farm homes of several of my grandmother’s sisters. When I learned that more than half the farm homes we were scheduled to visit had no electricity, I panicked. How can I exist without my nightly radio programs like “I Love a Mystery,” “Texaco Star Theater,” “Jack Benny” and all the other programs that I listened to every night?
When I got to the farm homes, I discovered that people actually got up at sunrise or even a little before, and went to bed soon after sunset. After supper and before bedtime, we sat on the front porch and talked. I was pleased that I had such interesting relatives and we all had fun in the conversations that sometimes lasted till the kerosene lamps were lit as daylight faded.
Today, all homes have electricity and most have big-screen TVs. The front porch conversations still happen but with fewer relatives. Fewer people converse. Fewer people even have front porches that have been replaced by air-conditioned family rooms inside the house.
But all conversation is not dead. A few weeks ago, I was invited to dinner by the first couple that I met and became friends with when I retired to Gainesville in 2000. For the whole time, we watched no TV news or other program that we might have watched if no evening conversation occurred. As I drove home, I felt a glow of friendship. That evening was the most exciting one I have had in a long time.
May 24, 2010: The April 25 program of the Believers Concert Band brought back many memories of my participation in making music for others to enjoy. Dr. Lee Martin had invited me to join that band back in 2004 and I really enjoyed playing my saxophones (alto and soprano) for about five years. Members of the band form a musical family.
When I entered the seventh grade in middle school, I asked my parents if I could learn to play a musical instrument. My mom pulled an alto saxophone out of storage and told me I could have it if I learned to play it correctly. That sax has been with me for about 70 years. It plays well when my fingers are not freezing.
I am deeply proud to have been a member of the Believers Band. The concert in April brought a tear to my eyes. I am grateful for the opportunity of getting to know fellow part-time musicians in this band.
Jan. 4, 2010: Looking back at the past year, I see that some good and some not so good events took place in my life.
I am a volunteer for Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center. I do jobs that require no brains, like preparing folders to be mailed or sharpening pencils. They even have a name for the jobs I do: “Tom Nichols type of no-brainer jobs.” I just do the jobs left for me.
One of the highlights of the entire year came in early December. Jackie Meyers had invited me to show my video on China to students at Sardis Enrichment Elementary school. Some 50 or 60 kids sat relatively still on the floor of the library to watch my video. Afterward, they peppered me with sharp questions that made me glad to be a teacher who likes stirring up young minds.
I am grateful to The Times for publishing my commentary on life here. Thanks to all who read these columns. I like writing. To me it is a continuation of teaching and it gives me something to do on days when I do not feel like facing the world in real life.
June 1, 2009: On May 30, 2000, my younger sister, her husband, and I drove into Gainesville. My moving van coming down from Pennsylvania had not arrived. So the three of us spent our first night in Gainesville sleeping on air mattresses in an otherwise empty home that I had bought the year before.
My daughter’s family moved to Georgia few days after me. She had a nice home in eastern Flowery Branch. She quickly became familiar with her new town. But I had trouble with streets in Gainesville. I discovered that many streets have one name on one side of an intersection and a very different name on the other side.
I searched for a new church home. Church music is an important value to me. I joined First Presbyterian because I wanted to be part of that family of believers.
My most fun activities here involved membership in the Believers Band at First United Methodist Church. I hope to return in the fall. I swim regularly as ordered by my friend Dr. Sumner. Two lifeguards at the pool spoil me. Ed and Cathleen save a large towel just for me. They think I am larger than most and need the extra yards of cloth to dry effectively. They are probably right.
Hospice, Lions Club, support groups for cancer and Parkinsons have enriched my life. I treasure what I have learned from all those persons I have met here. I would live nowhere else.