Life was game 'Mr. Nick' coached best

Bill Tanton

July 29, 1993|By Bill Tanton

In a city where sports fans are consumed with a feud between a baseball pitcher and another team's manager, the passing of an old high school coach doesn't get much attention.

That's too bad.

We have in our schools a cadre of men and women who, very quietly, teach and coach our youngsters and do it well, year after year.

They also do it in near-anonymity, compared to the adulation heaped upon those in pro sports. But they do something the pros seldom do. They touch people. Really touch their lives deeply.

They touch them in a positive and meaningful way, and those they touch often go on and touch many others in the same way.

In the forefront of these was Bob Nichols, who died here Tuesday at the age of 85.

Mr. Nick, as he was known to those he taught and coached at Friends School from 1938 until his retirement in 1970, was the epitome of the beloved educator.

I barely knew Mr. Nick, but for many years I saw him on the coaching lines. The mental picture I carry of him is probably the one many hundreds of Baltimoreans have.

He was a pipe smoker. And he was a perfect gentleman in his appearance and demeanor, even in the most heated athletic contest.

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the end was near for Mr. Nick, some of his former players and associates came forth to express their feelings about this special man.

"He coached all of us at Friends," said Dr. Byron Forbush, who was one of Mr. Nick's lacrosse attackmen in the '40s, went on to become an All-American at Johns Hopkins, and has been headmaster at Friends for four decades.

"Bob Nichols was very unusual. He taught history and English and he coached some other sports, but he's best known as our head lacrosse coach.

"He had a tie with young people that was extraordinary. I just went through our yearbooks and four separate classes dedicated their yearbooks to him."

Nichols also was an outstanding producer of lacrosse talent and teams.

At a high school with 300 students, half of them girls, Nichols fashioned lacrosse teams that had a record of 42-17 from 1952 to 1958. His '54 team was 9-0.

Four of his players are in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame: Joe Cowan, one of Hopkins' all-time greats in the '60s; Billy Morrill, another Hopkins all-timer from the late '50s; Joe Seivold, Washington College, '58; and Hank Kaestner, Hopkins, '67.

"Mr. Nick was a helluva man," says Joe Cowan, who has spent many recent years as an assistant coach at Hopkins.

"He didn't just teach us lacrosse. He taught us about life. When he taught history he did it the same way. He used it to show us how life should be lived.

"I've been blessed. I had Mr. Nick for my high school coach and Bob Scott as my coach at Hopkins. You can't find people with more integrity than those two."

Dick Watts, who retired two months ago after 20 years as lacrosse coach at UMBC, began his career as Nichols' assistant at Friends in 1957.

"Mr. Nick was one of the most influential people in my life in terms of learning the value of taking a step back," said Watts.

"I was just out of Hopkins, full of zip and vinegar, and he was a steadying influence on me. Between us we made some things happen. We won the MSA championship in '61.

"Mr. Nick was a fine offensive coach. He knew the game. And he was a gentleman from the word go.

"He was an ethical man with a sense of humor. I wish my kid had a chance to play for him."

Chick Lord, a Baltimore stock broker whose own son, Mark, is a football player who will enter Hopkins in the fall, considers himself lucky to have played for Nichols.

"He was a terrific guy who treated everybody the same way," Lord said. "He didn't care if they were faculty or kids. He treated them the same and he got away with it."

The testimonials go on and on. In every case, the words spoken are the warmest.

After 85 years and a long career working with young people, Mr. Nick leaves behind nothing but friends and admirers. A life can't be spent much better than that.

A memorial service will be held tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Stony Run Meeting House on Charles Street adjoining the Friends School campus. Dr. Forbush will preside.

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