“I was a killer alter boy. Man, I was good,” he jokes. Now, 47 years of teaching later (36 at East), all thoughts of his previous aspiration are behind him.
Born and raised in Kansas, Nickels attended St. Agnes, Rockhurst, and finally Shawnee Mission High School (now Shawnee Mission North). His skill with calculus gained him acceptance to some of the nation’s top schools – Duke, Carlton, North Carolina – but finances led him to KU.
“I wanted [to be] as far away from Kansas as I could get and I thought I was so cool. None of [the other colleges] gave us enough [scholarship money], so I ended up at KU.” He could not have loved it more.
During his years as a math major at KU, Nickels was recognized as one of the best computer programmers on campus. Recognizing his skill, the newly formed NASA organization assured him that he would have a spot among their computer programmers upon his graduation. Then came the Kennedy assassination and the hiring freeze. To make money while waiting for NASA to call and with a minor in history under his belt, Nickels took up student teaching. A year later, the call came.
“It was a choice between computers and people,” Nickels remembers. “I chose people.”
Though his mother and friends have often told him how rich he could have been had he made the other call, Nickels has far too many fond memories of teaching to have second thoughts – like the time he and his class met the Prime Minister of New Zealand. On a trip through the filming locations of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Nickels thought it would be a good idea to call the Prime Minister’s office before embarking on the trip. On an idle day in Wellington, the capitol, he received a call – the Prime Minister was ready to see him. So Nickels, students in tow, trudged into her office to be greeted by, “a big old gal with a booming voice…she was really cool.” The visit was in local papers the next day.
Though memorable, for medical reasons doctors have told Nickels that the trips have had to stop.
“I’ve taken 55 student trips overseas…it’s over 2000 kids. Teaching a hand-picked class in the world’s greatest classroom. Who can beat it?”
After 47 years, Nickels has touched the lives of countless students – and they’re starting to touch his. On a recent trip to the Emergency Room, the attending physician was one of Nickels’ students from more than 30 years ago.
“He saved my life,” Nickels remembers. “There’s no better compliment than that.”