Among the memorabilia at a 90th birthday reception for Dr. Robert A. Nicholson last month was a copy of a paycheck from 1948. The amount: $84.63.
“That was for a whole month,” commented his older son, Paul Nicholson. “It shows two things. First, how long ago that was. And second, the college didn’t pay its employees very well in those days.”
Nicholson and Anderson College, which became Anderson University under his presidency, grew together. He is now 90 years of age, and the institution of higher learning to which he dedicated most of his adult life will reach the century mark four years from now.
Nicholson’s longevity is noteworthy when you consider he failed to pass his Army physical during World War II, making moot a decision he was pondering whether to register as a conscientious objector to military service. Yet seven decades later he is still in reasonably good health for a nonagenarian.
He first signed on to Anderson College as a professor of music, founding the Anderson College Choir (now the Anderson University Chorale). He served as head of the music department until becoming academic dean in the late 1950s following the death of Dean Russell Olt. On the retirement of Robert Reardon as president in 1983 he became the college’s third president, retiring in 1990.
The Nicholson family and I go back to our respective roots in Minnesota. He grew up in St. Paul Park, Minn., a suburb of the Twin Cities, while my parents were living some 90 miles away in Mankato, and our families were acquainted with each other. His mother was one of the singers at my dad’s funeral in 1951.
When I moved to Anderson, Dr. Nicholson was part-time minister of music at Park Place Church of God in addition to his professorial duties. He soon resigned from the former post because of time constraints. Then when I was a student at Anderson College, he was chair of the music department and soon became dean.
The college had just become Anderson University, with him as president, when our oldest daughter Rachel enrolled in 1987.
The college’s coming of age essentially happened under the two Bobs, Reardon and Nicholson. In that span enrollment nearly doubled, and academic offerings mushroomed as well. Nicholson in particular made tremendous strides in cementing the relationship between Anderson University and the community around it.
He picked up his nickname of “Nick” to distinguish between himself and Dr. Reardon during faculty meetings, where participants traditionally were on a first-name basis.
His beloved wife, Dorothy, died in 2011. Sometime later he renewed acquaintances with Laura Lee Makings Oldham, widow of gospel singer Doug Oldham. They were married last year. They sit right behind us in church every Sunday.
Ninety years and counting. The legacy of Dr. Robert Nicholson to his family, city, church and university continues.
Jim Bailey's reflections on Anderson's past appear on Sunday. His regular column appears on Thursday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.