AMerican Veteran 10

James Travis Nichols

October 21, 1944 ~ December 29, 2023 (age 79) 79 Years Old

James Nichols Obituary

James Travis Nichols (10/21/44-12/29/23) was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, son of Isaac and Helen Bell Nichols. One of 8 children in his family (older sister Shirley died of polio at age 7 in 1937), Jim was raised in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, a close-knit and historically significant small town renowned for its mid-1800s anti-slavery activities and Quaker values.

Rather than follow his father into the coal mines upon graduation from high school, Jim decided instead to join the Navy. Serving from 1962-1967, he embraced the opportunity to experience the larger world. His 5-year tour of duty concluded with two years in Vietnam, where he was assigned to NAVFORV Saigon at the time of his discharge. He would make many trips back to Vietnam later in his life--a testament to how he felt about its people and culture.

Jim took a certain pride in saying that he was not drafted but enlisted in service to his country; as a Quaker, he was asked more than once if he understood that he was neither expected nor required to serve. He had many family role models for his sense of duty--among them his father, who was stationed at Schofield Barracks when Pearl Harbor was attacked during WWII; his brother Keith, who served 30 years on active duty with the US Navy and Coast Guard; and his brother Martin, a Vietnam-era veteran who served 4 years in the US Air Force working as an Air Traffic Controller at numerous Air Force bases. The family view of military service can be summed up in a favorite quote by President Kennedy: "...any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: 'I served in the United States Navy.' "

Returning to the Canton area of Ohio as a Vietnam veteran, jobs were scarce. Applying his natural people skills and the exceptional work ethic instilled in him growing up, Jim worked as a bellhop, steel mill worker, truck driver--whatever job he could find. In 1969 he finally found good longer-term employment working as a patrolman and detective for the Canton Police Department. Going to school part time while working full time, he earned degrees in general studies, criminal justice, and law enforcement administration at Kent State University, and was on campus the day of the 1970 shootings there.

In 1975 Jim was presented with a new opportunity: take the policing knowledge and skills he had been developing and apply them to teaching students who were pursuing a degree in criminal justice at Tompkins Cortland Community College. The move to NY and the transition to teaching worked out well; he stayed on at TC3 for 27 years (1975-2001) teaching courses in criminal justice, human services, and labor studies. While teaching full time, he completed his MS in Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama (1985); his Master’s thesis was titled An Analysis of Attitudes of Selected Graduates of the New York State Basic Training Course for Police Officers Concerning Relevance of Curriculum. Two years later he went on to earn an MPS in Community Services Administration at Alfred University (1987). 

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Jim was involved with a number of non-teaching roles at TC3, including championing better employee health benefits as Faculty Association President and overseeing student groups such as the Veterans' Club and the Youth For Understanding (YFU) program that brought students from around the world to Dryden, housed with local host families (including the Nichols' household) during their year of study.

After retiring from TC3 in 2001, Jim accepted a new professional challenge with SUNY Empire State College, where he spent the next 19 years mentoring students pursuing studies in non-traditional degree programs. It was a perfect fit: having learned from early on in his own life the power of education and a "can do" attitude, Jim was an enthusiastic motivator for students working independently toward degrees. Most of his students during his nearly 50-year career at TC3 and ESC would likely agree that teaching and mentoring were Jim's true calling--to the very end of his life; in recent months he continued to engage with and encourage aides and TC3 nursing students from his hospital bed.

Jim had high expectations of himself and everyone around him, and didn't suffer fools gladly. He could be a hard task master if he saw you not working up to your potential, or headed in the wrong direction in life. Those who did the work and met (or better yet, exceeded) his expectations got to see that beneath his often gruff exterior was someone who truly cared about people and their lives. To many, Jim was an enigma; one minute he could believably present himself as "just a dumb old country boy trying to make a living," the next minute an expert on topics as varied as Admiral James Stockdale's Stoic philosophy, Lyndon Johnson’s accomplishments as president, or how to roast a pig. He could talk to anyone about anything--and he had an opinion about everything. He never did anything halfway, and he firmly believed that if you weren't 15 minutes early, you were late--and you'd better have a darn good reason why.

The challenges of Jim's early life shaped his worldview, and he modeled the kindness of others that he had experienced during his own hard times. He strongly believed--and taught by his example--that every individual has both the opportunity and the responsibility to make their life count for something: wherever you started from or whatever your current circumstance, do whatever you are doing as well as you can, with a focus on becoming the best possible version of yourself and leaving the little corner of the world you occupy better than you found it.

Most people who knew Jim would describe him as "a good man," "one of a kind"--and an enthusiastic fan of his alma mater's Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Alternately the kindest, most interesting, or most irascible guy in any room (or the one most likely to skewer you with his dry wit), he had his share of detractors--but he was always focused on doing the right thing as he saw it: "right" according to values rooted in his small-town Quaker upbringing and military focus on duty and service. He wanted the attention to be not on him, but on the cause--and he was like a dog with a bone when it came to the causes he championed. From putting food into empty refrigerators while on police house calls to giving money from his own pocket to students who couldn't afford their books, Jim was always looking for ways to make a difference.

Jim fully invested himself in learning, teaching, and making the most of his time here on earth. He leaves to his survivors the task of carrying on his legacy: his wife of 37 years, Margaret Bailey Nichols; three siblings: brothers Martin Isaac (Tereza) Nichols and Richard Thomas (Pauline) Nichols; one sister, Edith Louise Nichols (Edward) Elerick; sister-in-law Judy Sennett and brother-in-law Robert Bailey (Kyndra Ward); 19 nieces/nephews and their spouses, children, and grandchildren; and countless friends, students, and acquaintances who have shared in the journey of Jim's life in one way or another. He was predeceased by his father Isaac Richard Nichols; his beloved mother Helen Ann Bell Miller Nichols; sister Shirley Maxine Miller; brother Lawrence Monford (Patience) Nichols; sister Anna Lee Nichols and her husband David Lewis; and brother Keith Eugene (Virginia) Nichols.

Special thanks to those who supported Jim through his end-of-life health challenges, especially Dr. Jacob Skezas; Dr. Anthony Sidari; Lou and the rest of the dedicated workers at Tompkins County Visiting Nurse Service; Cayuga Medical Center's PMR Unit; the staff at Bridges; special caregiver Miriam (aka Kamala); Margaret's all around “can do” cousin Becky; invaluable longtime helper with things on the home front (and beyond) Aaron; and all who visited, sent cards, provided transportation, or offered words of encouragement through the last year of Jim’s life.

As was Jim's wish, there will be no calling hours or services. Instead, please honor him in a way that reflects something about his life that you found meaningful or inspiring. Become your own best version of "one of a kind." Be a lifelong learner. Find ways to make the world a fairer, kinder place. Commit to getting or keeping your life on a better path. Offer help to someone who needs it. Contribute to a charitable cause related to education, criminal justice, human services, or feeding the hungry. Jim was personally a supporter of Clear Path for Veterans and the Food Bank of the Southern Tier A monetary gift to the charity of your choice should include the notation “in memory of Jim Nichols.”

The future of the democratic ideals Jim held so dear depends on every citizen’s informed, active participation in their government. Next November, please vote for candidates who care more about the country Jim loved and served than about their own personal agendas or political fortunes.


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