John Nichols worked at Cumberland County College for 31 years.
He worked there until one day in late March, when he died of a heart attack right at his desk. He was 64.
Nichols, of Millville, was the college’s public relations director. And while his death stunned and saddened colleagues and friends on the Vineland campus, they found some comfort in knowing that he enjoyed the work he did at that desk.
“He led a very simple life, and he was truly dedicated to our college,” college President Thomas Isekenegbe said. “He loved not just his job, but the college.”
Isekenegbe worked with Nichols for 11 years and calls him a friend. The president knows Nichols had no local family — just a sister in Maryland and two nieces. So Isekenegbe said that where and how Nichols died was “a metaphor for his life. ... It’s just ironic.”
And friends said Nichols had a great sense of irony and humor.
Kathy Corbalis, Nichols’ counterpart at Atlantic Cape Community College, knew him for 30 years. They talked occasionally, sometimes to warn each other of possible trouble on the way.
“But no matter how serious the topic when we started,” she said at a memorial service, “we always had a laugh along the way, and I always hung up smiling.”
Glenn Lillie, of Mays Landing, met “Nick” in 1973. They worked together for eight years, first at two public agencies in Cumberland County, then as the PR shop at the Claridge Hotel Casino in Atlantic City as it got ready to open in 1981. They also spent a lot of time together off the job, everything from taking road trips to Muhammad Ali’s backwoods Pennsylvania training camp to visiting John’s Bar in Millville.
Lillie was impressed by his buddy’s talent for writing — “He could write the pablum we had to put out to keep our jobs, but he was also an amazing poet,” Lillie said — and by his tastes in other writers, in music, and in life.
“He just had a great sense of the absurd, and he understood and loved good writing,” Lillie said.
Nichols’ writing won national awards among college publications — even if his competition often came from much bigger institutions, armed with bigger budgets.
Danielle Romeo, Nichols’ assistant, knew him for 20 years as “a warm-hearted guy ... just really nice to work with. He made everything pleasant and fun.”
Nichols had a signature line on campus. If anyone asked how he was, Romeo said Nichols always gave the same answer — “Never had a bad day in my life.”
Nichols’ 65th birthday was this month, which would have made him eligible for retirement. And they had talked about that, but Romeo said he wasn’t planning to retire anytime soon. He wasn’t ready to leave Cumberland County College.
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