Former East teacher John Nickels passed away Monday, Sept. 10 after a stomach operation at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission.
His death came as a shock to all that knew him, according to social studies teacher and StuCo sponsor Brenda Fishman. There were no known health problems before he went in to AdventHealth on Sunday with stomach pains, which were later discovered to be fatal infections.
Nickels, who taught geography and social studies at Indian Hills and East for over four decades, was a staple for many during his teaching career, according to Fishman.
As of 2012, Nickels had taken his students on 55 overseas trips. Fishman attended 15 or so, she said. He’d do anything for his students, according to Fishman — and had traditions that captured the hearts of thousands of his students.
Nickels had postcards covering most of the blue, cinderblock walls in his classroom — but not from his trips. They were from trips that he’d inspired his students to go on after they’d left high school.
“Kids can look around and see the world, and if I want to tell them about a place, it’s up [on the wall] somewhere,” Nickels said in an interview with The Harbinger in 2011. “I just have to find it, which is kind of fun, to go on a search. Like a scavenger hunt.”
His trademark tradition was the senior letters, Fishman said — the ones he’d have each freshman write at the end of the year regarding their experiences, hopes, desires and ambitions.
He wouldn’t simply give them to students after they graduated, she said. He held on to each letter and sent them three years after they graduated to the listed home address of the student, regardless of where they’d ended up.
“He was such a bright spot. Still have my huge packet of letters he had friends and family of us young freshman Lancers write,” Amanda Allison, a former student of Nickels, said in a comment on The Harbinger’s Facebook post regarding his death. “He collected and maintained those for decades and ensured…as seniors we all received these glorious envelopes full of love, memories and advice for our future selves.”
After retiring in 2013, Nickels loved the simple things. He volunteered at the Great Plains SPCA. He enjoyed collecting — nothing in particular. He walked his dog, sat with the cats. He had 15 at one point, according to Fishman.
“He was kind of an interesting character, and was very endearing and colorful,” Fishman said. “He really was a grown-up kid.”
A celebration of life will be held for Nickels in the cafeteria on Friday at 6:30 to commemorate Nickels and his contributions to East and beyond.
*correction made, 12:08 p.m. Sept. 12.