[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.