When Alex Nicholson '13 arrives on campus this September and opens the door to his dorm for the first time, it may feel as familiar as the front door at home.
As he begins his freshman year, Alex joins brothers Garrett '11, Sean '08, and Matt '05 Nicholson on a short list of families with four or more single-generation brothers admitted to Dartmouth. (There are about 50 in the College's history.) A feat all the more remarkable when one considers that both of their parents' lives were ended early by illness: their mother, Suzanne, passed away in 2007, and their father, Tom Nicholson '75, died in 1993, when his eldest son was just 10 years old.
Tom's life at Dartmouth was a time of great happiness, when he formed deep bonds with his classmates and teammates. He was a leader on and off campus and, in his sophomore year, played on the Ivy League Champion Big Green football team. After graduating, Tom stayed in New England for a while before returning to his hometown of Chicago, where he began a career in retail computer sales. A professional move to Tampa introduced him to Suzanne, who from that point on “was up to her neck in Green,” recalls Tom's brother, Jack Nicholson '76.
The couple moved to Annapolis and soon started a family. Sons began arriving with the birth of Matt in 1983 and kept coming until 1990, when the fourth, Alex, was born. The boys were fated to have just three more years with their father, who succumbed to complications from Hodgkin's disease at age 40.
Not long after Tom died, Suzanne was diagnosed with breast cancer. Jack recalls that, as she neared the end of her battle against the disease and contemplated her sons' future, “she knew Dartmouth could offer them a surrogate family that would survive both their parents' lives.”
Along with Tom and his great friend Bernard Jammet, who later became her companion, “Suzanne saw the Dartmouth connection as not just a great preparation for life, but as another family for her boys,” says Jack. “She knew that many of Tom's Dartmouth friends would always care for the boys and that another generation of Dartmouth graduates she and Tom would never know—her sons' classmates—would also surround them. In this way, her sons would pass from one generation of Dartmouth to another.”
Being at Dartmouth enabled Matt to come to know his father more vividly than he could by memory alone. “When I entered Dartmouth, I thought I knew about my father,” he says, “but when I graduated, I felt like I knew him completely.”
Sean remembers the sense of family that enveloped him at the dedication of a memorial to his father outside Beta Theta Pi house. “I was surrounded by my dad's friends," he recalls, "whom I always knew as ‘uncles,' and who had essentially adopted my family from the time of my dad's death."
“Our Dartmouth friendships are something we've always passed on in our family,” adds Sean. “It started with my dad, and we've continued it, leaving a group of men we consider our brothers to take over for us as the latest Nicholson enters this special place. Regardless of whether I'm there or not, I know I have some of my greatest friends around to look after my brothers.”
This is the lasting legacy of Tom Nicholson '75, memorialized in granite with these words:
In memory of Thomas N. Nicholson IV
Class of 1975
A Man and Loyal Son of Dartmouth
On Whom She Cast Her Spell
In Whom Her Spirit Lived
He Stood Watch
He Stood as Brother Stands by Brother
Jim Bildner '75 is a writer in Boston.