Howard Nickelson, 66, U.S. employee, civil rights activist paralyzed by polio

January 18, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Howard Marshall Nickelson wasn't stopped by the polio that struck him when he was 17: The Anne Arundel County civil rights activist and retired federal official ran his life from a wheelchair and traveled where he wished.

Mr. Nickelson, who died of pulmonary failure Jan. 9 at his longtime Pasadena home at age 66, won dozens of awards and tributes -- both on the job and in his work for civil rights.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in New York City, Mr. Nickelson was a 6-foot-2-inch scholar-athlete when polio struck in 1948 -- immobilizing him from shoulder to toe.

He earned his bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College and went to work in the Patchogue district office of the Social Security Administration on Long Island. At the same time, he was commuting to the City University of New York to earn a master's degree in public administration.

In 1961, he moved to the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn. Four years later, he became director of the Health Care Finance Administration's Office of Issuances.

In this role, "he went into the field to tell doctors and medical agencies about Medicare," said his wife of 44 years, the former Rosalie Rosner. "People don't really remember, but at the time, doctors were very against it."

In 1968, she said, Mr. Nickelson became the first chairman of the Anne Arundel Human Relations Commission, which arose from the Anne Arundel League for Human Rights.

During the 1970s, he began the Chesapeake Area Society for the Physically Handicapped, which fought for laws requiring accessible office buildings, restaurants and shopping centers, and in 1979 he was a delegate to a White House conference on the disabled.

"He used a wheelchair most of his life," Mrs. Nickelson said. "You know, 35 years ago, people in wheelchairs just weren't having a convenient time -- and he traveled extensively." Her husband used hand controls to drive.

"He dealt with some very difficult situations," she said. "A lot of people would have decided to be a disabled person -- but that wasn't him."

A 1993 profile in The Sun said of Mr. Nickelson: "With rejuvenated arms, he vaults into his car, then drives off to a schedule that could leave anyone breathless."

The article noted the growing awareness of post-polio syndrome -- an erosion of strength that occurs decades after the initial paralysis -- that was slowing him down.

Mr. Nickelson retired from HCFA in 1994, and was a district coordinator for the American Association of Retired Persons until about two years ago. He also enjoyed photography and making wood furniture.

Mr. Nickelson was buried Tuesday in New York. His family suggested memorial contributions to the American Lung Association.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Todd Nickelson of Pasadena, and two grandsons.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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