Amherst Magazine

Richard Hall Nicholls '60

Deceased March 14, 2009

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 In Memory

(The following remembrance was prepared by Ken Rosenthal and by Rich’s daughter Jamie Nicholls Biondi, ’88.)

Rich Nicholls died March 14, 2009 after a courageous ten-year battle with multiple myeloma, an incurable form of cancer.  

Rich grew up in Elkhart, Indiana and came to Amherst from The Hill School.  He graduated from Stanford Law School and received a master’s degree in tax law from NYU.  He was a nationally recognized lawyer in the tax-exempt bond field, head of the tax department at Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon, and later of counsel to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.  Rich was called “the tax lawyer’s tax lawyer” in The Bond Lawyer and his colleagues described him as insightful and creative, with an encyclopedic memory and an ability to “say more with fewer words than anyone else they knew.”  He did extensive pro bono work, and in 2000 was awarded the Bernard P. Friel Award for distinguished service in public finance.

At Amherst, Rich was Co-Captain of the swimming team, an economics major, and a member of Phi Delt. His inquiring mind and discerning eye led him to study architecture at Smith. He loved to drive fast cars on twisting roads, waterskiing and skiing, and sailing in high winds and rough waters. He liked to be challenged and to press others to defend their beliefs. As a long-time member of the Stamford Yacht Club, he raced competitively on his boat, Rhiannon. 

Above all, Rich was a man who knew how to enjoy life and cherish his family. After his cancer diagnosis, he became an expert in his illness, talked his way into numerous cancer studies, and was able to survive and thrive almost through will power alone.  All of his six  grandchildren were born during those last ten years of his life, and he was active in teaching them to ski, swim and sail. He was a truly exceptional and loving father, brother and grandfather, as well as husband to his late wife, Anne.  He leaves his daughter Jamie Nicholls Biondi (Amherst ’88), her husband Fran and their children; his son Christopher Nicholls, his wife Yvonne, and their children; and his first wife and mother of his children, Judy Cormier. 

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Memorial Service for Rich Nicholls

April 25, 2009

Remarks of Ken Rosenthal

 

I was Rich’s freshman roommate at Amherst.  There were three of us in a two-room dormitory suite.   We overslept our first class.

 

Trying to adjust to Rich’s sleeping practices was difficult.  He didn’t differentiate between day and night.  He avoided making that distinction by having lights and music on all the time. One Friday in July 1968 I drove from Massachusetts all night to show up at a house Rich had rented on Long Island’s south fork.  I arrived at dawn Saturday, to find what appeared to be a wild party going on.  Lots of music.  Lots of light. Great, I thought, this weekend is getting off to a good start.  But there was just Rich. Asleep in his bedroom. Some time the night before, he simply stopped doing whatever he was doing and went to bed. For Rich, it made perfect sense to begin one day right where he had left off the day before.

 

In the summer of 1959, Rich and I sailed from Toronto on the passenger ship Arkadia bound for England, where we bought a Volkswagen and drove it all around Europe.  From June 19th to September 5th we put on 9,270 miles. Then we brought the car back with us on the Arkadia. Rich dropped me in New Jersey and drove the Volkswagen to Elkhart. His father sold it there for more than it cost us to buy it, drive it, dent it (one accident, one break-in), and bring it home.  Rich had figured out that there was no Volkswagen dealer in Indiana and he was sure we could make a profit on the car after all that.  He was right.

 

I taught him to play chess on that trip.  I had brought a chess set along and found my partner in travel didn’t know how to play the game.  I had played for years, so I taught him.  And, much to my increasing frustration, I kept a record of our games, 77 in all.  I am proud to say I won 8 of the first 11 games we played.  Rich held me even the rest of the summer.  I don’t think I ever played chess again.

 

Rich loved cars. Quirky ones, in my opinion.  I don’t mean the silly little MINI Cooper that he had here in Stamford a couple of years ago, which somehow straightened out the twisting back roads of Greenwich whenever Rich drove them.  Nor do I mean the MG he had in college, which I admit was a neat machine in a nice shade of blue, if a bit short on exterior door handles.  No, the really peculiar car was his Studebaker.  Our freshman roommate George Gillett believes Rich loved it because it was the only car built in Indiana.  Surely it was the only Studebaker in Massachusetts. We called it the “Hot Stud,” referring to the car, not Rich.

 

Rich was an economics major at Amherst.  But did you know he studied architecture in college, too?  College, but not exactly Amherst College.  Amherst is not far from Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges. Here I must remind you that back then, Amherst had no women; Smith and Mount Holyoke had no men. You could take a course at another college, free, but only if your Dean was satisfied that something like it was not taught at your college.  Rich researched the course catalogs, applying the skills that would later serve him so well in probing the Internal Revenue Code, and found the one course that Amherst absolutely didn’t offer, but Smith did.  Smith offered a course in architecture. That’s not all that Smith offered, which is exactly the point.  Rich studied architecture at Smith.

 

You know he loved to ski.  Do you know how he learned to ski?  One college weekend he and George Gillett drove to Stowe, VT, checked into an inn, rented skis, took one lesson (probably just so they’d know how to work the cable bindings), hopped on the lift to the top of the mountain, and skied down.  One lesson ---- top of the mountain.  Sound like Rich?

 

Look, Rich was not always the completely wonderful guy you have heard about today.  He was a bit of a sadist.  His method of torture was approved by a Justice Department memo and certified as acceptable by our friend John Swope (whom I’ll never forgive). 

 

It worked this way: Find a subject who (I know it’s hard for you to believe) doesn’t enjoy sailing. Introduce  the subject to Rich’s sailboat or his cigarette.  Speed off into the roughest and highest seas. Laugh while the victim is desperately trying to find some non-existent refuge to escape wind and waves.

 

None of you have experienced this side of Rich, because all of you have been personally selected by him, genetically or otherwise, for your shared love of the sea. But when all the CIA torture memos are released, you’ll find one with credit given to Rich for his patriotism, and you’ll know why.

 

There was so much I admired in Rich.  His intellect and interest in so many things.   His ability to make difficult problems simple, and then solve them. Of course, he occasionally made simple problems complex; I kind of loved him for doing that, too 

 

But mostly it was for the personal things.  The fine brother he was to Mary and Jeff. The wonderful relationship he always maintained with Judy.  The tight partnership he had with Anne, and the loving support they gave each other.  The marvelous father he was to Jamie and Chris and the terrific grandfather he became. 

 

I know we all admired him for the incredible, spirited way he responded to his diagnosis. He studied and became an expert on his cancer, challenged it, and beat it for so long.  One reason Rich’s loss has been so difficult to accept may be --- because he was so successful at holding his cancer at bay for so long that we assumed he could do it forever.

 

I said to John Swope that Rich had lived a tough life during his last ten years.  John corrected me. He said Rich lived during those years just the way he always wanted to live. 

 

And that’s the way I’ll remember Rich.

 

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