In 2001, Daily News columnist, Ted Silary wrote a piece titled “A Groundskeeper’s Labor of Love” about a dedicated West Philadelphia High School groundskeeper named Ronald Nichols. On June 1, 2012, Ronald Nichols died of heart failure after a lengthy illness. He was 62 years old.
Born Jan. 3, 1950, to the late Mamie and Russell Nichols, Ronald grew up in South Philadelphia, one of six children. He graduated from South Philadelphia High School and attended Spring Garden College, where he studied carpentry. He worked in the construction trades for a short period, before joining the Philadelphia Board of Education, where he worked as an athletic field caretaker for more than 35 years. He retired in July 2011. Assigned to the West Philadelphia Athletic field house and field, Nichols’ job allowed him to combine three loves: horticulture, sports and young people.
An avid gardener with a green thumb, Nichols not only lovingly maintained the West playing field, but also kept an amazing collection of indoor plants, some reaching the ceiling of his field house office and workspace. In an early South Philadelphia home, he designed an outdoor garden filled with bursts of color, pathways and a fish-filled pond. Neighbors often came to sit quietly in the garden, admiring its beauty and calm in the midst of all the city concrete.
A former high school football player, Nichols loved all kinds of physical activities. Over the years he was an ardent cyclist, biking to Atlantic City to help raise money for charity; a student of Tai Chi and martial arts; a fitness buff, researching exercise regimens as well as balms and home remedies for aching and bruised muscles. He loved football, and as the Daily News column stated, “When he does have a chance to ‘relax,’ he stands on West’s sideline and cheers and encourages the players, many of whom he knows by name. His voice is louder than most of the coaches.”
Nichols, however, was more than an unofficial football coach. He served as a mentor and father figure to many West Philly high school athletes and students, male and female alike. He urged them to work hard in school and helped them to pursue college and/or work. Students also sought him out for personal guidance.
“Over the years, he helped me grow as a man,” said West Philadelphia High School graduate, Terrell Roper. “Everything that I saw as a negative: football, college, love, he helped me to see as a positive. It felt like from high school on, he was molding me.”
Ronald Nichols was a family man. Married to Cynthia Broadnax Nichols for 25 years, they raised two daughters, Nia and Imani. Nia, who recently graduated from Temple University, said, “My father was always there for us. I knew he was really sick when he could not attend my graduation last month. Wild horses could not have kept my dad from something like that.”
Ronald Nichols was a member of Bethel Deliverance Church. He is survived by his wife, Cynthia; daughters, Nia and Imani, and Shirley Greene from a previous union; three grandchildren, Cassandra, Keith and Kareem; nine great-grand children; his twin sister Rochelle Nichols-Solomon and four other siblings, Rebecca McJett Dennis, and Russell, Reginald and Richard Nichols; his sister-in-law, Tasshenia Broadnax; and a host of other in-laws, nieces and nephews, cousins and close friends.
A private funeral service will be held Saturday, June 9. In keeping with his wishes, contributions can be sent in his name to The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 100 N. 20th Street, 5th Floor, Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.