Rest in peace, friend of Chico

CN&R contributing editor says goodbye to former councilman Tom Nickell

Tom Nickell

[Editor’s note: According to the Butte County Coroner’s office, Tom Nickell was found dead in his Chico home on July 19. Details on exact date and cause of death have not yet been released.]

Like so many, I was shocked to hear of Tom Nickell’s passing.

Tom was truly unique—as a public servant to this community and as my friend. In his roles of vice mayor, park commissioner, CARD trustee and concerned citizen, he served Chicoans his way.

I met Tom in 2006, six months after I’d arrived to Chico as the new editor of the CN&R. Retired from the California Highway Patrol, Tom threw his hat in the ring for City Council that year. Bob Speer and I interviewed the candidates ahead of the paper’s endorsements.

At the end of our session, Tom asked me, “Are you related to Harold Tuchinsky, Mr. T?” Turns out, my father was his junior high woodshop teacher in Los Angeles, and Tom still had a project from those days in his garage.

The CN&R ended up endorsing Mark Sorensen, much to the consternation of the cadre of progressive who’d rallied around Tom. Amid a barrage of angry emails and calls, I reached out to Tom.

“No explanation necessary,” he interjected. “I just have to knock on a few more doors.”

Relieved by his grace, I remarked how I wished more of his backers had the same reaction.

His response: “If you need to borrow my flak jacket, let me know.”

Come November, he edged Sorensen by 78 votes. Tom became vice mayor the next two-year cycle and, characteristically, supported Sorensen’s appointment to the Planning Commission. (Sorensen, hired earlier this month as Chico’s new city manager, went on to serve two council terms, leading a conservative majority as mayor.) Tom looked past political labels to find allies willing to tackle city problems.

His approach was iconoclastic. Tom shared beliefs strongly held by progressives—smart growth and the protecting the environment, for instance—while also standing firm for public safety and fellow law enforcement officers. He attracted voters from across the political spectrum while maddening politicos who expected him to toe a monolithic line. He’d let anyone he respected, regardless of affiliation, put a campaign sign at the front of his house.

He was appointed to the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission in 2017. He handily won election to the Chico Area Recreation and Park District board the next year. I suspect he would have filed to seek another term this November. Tom enjoyed serving, with a focus on what concerned his Chico neighbors.

Myriad folks knew Tom as a friend—a generous friend. That is what he became to my wife, Amy, and me. He did not stand on formalities. Councilman to editor? No, I was Mr. T’s son.

We as people were his first thought when he heard of the Humboldt Fire (2008 harbinger of the Camp Fire) blazing toward Paradise. Just after Amy and I got a reverse-911 call advising we might face evacuation, the phone rang with Tom telling us to get off the Ridge immediately. The two of us and our four dogs would stay at his place. “We can worry about the politics later,” he concluded, taking nothing but a “yes” as the answer.

Our vehicle wound up being one of the last down Clark Road before flames cut off that route. We reached his home in a half-hour. Relatives who hesitated got stuck on Skyway for hours. Tom offered us accommodations for as long as needed—fortunately, we were stranded just one night.

That was Tom. Caring. Selfless. Unique.

I miss him.

Adios, Amigo.

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15 Comments

  1. I met Tom in 2006 when he was running for City Council, and I was running for the school board. We attended lots of social events and fundraisers that season, and as political newbies, we often found ourselves alone in a corner of the room. I remember the day we met at one such occasion, I sheepishly confided to him that I knew no one in the room. Tom put out his hand, admitting he was in the same predicament. From then in he was a loyal friend. I now serve on the city council in the little town where I moved, and I keep Tom in mind as a model of leadership, fairness, and a commitment to do good. RIP, my friend.

  2. I’ve known Tom since the mid 1980’s and he always did things his own way. Our lives got busy and we drifted apart after he moved to Chico. He was a good man and I was proud to call him my friend. He will be missed. Rest In Peace, Brother.

  3. I met Tom when he was elected to the City Council. Few politicians stray from some classic ideological path, but for Tom, it was a specialty. One thing for sure, Tom was the loose cannon who would always passionately do what he believed was the right thing. He was always gracious to me and always enjoyable to talk with. We have lost a great advocate for Chico.

  4. Thank you for writing this. Tom will be missed by all that knew him. He was a great man. May his memory be a blessing.

  5. I worked with Tom in the Newhall Area of the California Highway Patrol. Tom was always a hard worker. Tom was a friend to many and there are so many of us who like you are shocked at his untimely passing. May you rest in Peace Tom! You will be missed!

  6. Hi Evan — Thank you for writing this. I knew Tom a bit in high school, and a bit at USC, and ran into him at a reunion many years ago. We had a nice conversation about his CHP work and psychology studies. Sorry to hear this news. Also: Your dad was my 7th grade drafting teacher at Patrick Henry Jr. High. He was an excellent teacher. I was not an excellent drafting student.

  7. Met Tom in 1995 when Steve (Andrews) and I joined an adult softball league. Best evenings with great people. Tom was one of a kind. Rest In Peace my friend.

  8. My younger brother Tommy was loved by his family. It is wonderful to know others appreciated the good work he was doing in Chico. He is the first of us five siblings to leave this earth. The void is great as is the grief. Memories and pictures will have to do. He was planning to attend his niece’s wedding next May and we talked of all the family being together. Tommy was always looking forward to what was next. I am so happy to know of his friends and how they loved him too. Mary Black

  9. I met and got to know Tom while delivering his mail for several years. I always enjoyed the chance to briefly chat when he was out and about. Without fail, he always had a smile on his face and some friendly words to say. That was his true nature.
    He shared his amiable personality and positive outlook with anybody he met. Tom spent a lifetime in service to his community, both in his professional career and after retirement. But also along the way, just by being himself, he brightened a lot of people’s lives.
    Rest well, Tom.

  10. I met Tom about 6 years ago when I and many others became involved in trying to make Chico a safer more clean place to live and raise a family. We became fast friends and before I left California in March 2022, I would take Tom food when his health wasn’t so good. I just heard about him passing and am truly saddened by the news. Tom was a great guy and good friend. He always had words of wisdom for me and loved Chico and it’s citizens. You will be missed Tom, rest in piece.

  11. I was fortunate to have known Tom. Not as well as many but still enough to know what a good man he was. He will be greatly missed.

  12. Tom definitely made an impression. He was full of life, which is why I am struggling that he left this Earth too early. I loved our walks together in the park, our chats at his home, I will miss the fresh veggies he would tug out of the garden right in front of me, and his advice and encouragement. I loved that he had an open heart and a willingness to extend friendship and have deep conversations. I loved his conservatorship of our community via his longstanding service holding various seats on council, commissions and boards. You leave quite a void, my friend. I will miss you and send prayers up to you. Please keep an eye out as we continue your walks in our beautiful park. RIP.

  13. I met Tom in 1983, or 1984 when he arrived fresh out of the CHP Academy and was assigned to the West Valley Area in the San Fernando Valley. Tom had a colorful life prior to the CHP, and we talked about it often. We remained friends ever since. Tom was passionate about everything he did. We kept in touch over the years and I was shocked at his passing. Tom will be missed by many. RIP old friend.

  14. I met Tom at Duffys on one Friday night in 2006. He was such a easy person to talk with. He obtained a degree in psychology before joining the CHP. What a sad loss to our Chico community. Very sad to hear of the loss of Tom.

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