2000 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, then decide what you want to do, then go for it with gusto and prayer."
The third of seven children, Jim Nicholson was born in 1938 in a farmhouse outside Struble, Iowa. The farm had once belonged to his grandfather, a Scottish immigrant who lost everything during the Depression. Nicholson's father quit school in the eighth grade to farm full time. He and Nicholson's mother, who was valedictorian of her senior class, tried to make a go of it as farmers. After two consecutive years of bad crops, however, the family was forced to move off the farm to the small town of Le Mars. Jim Nicholson was two at the time, and life in his family, which had never been easy, became even more difficult.
Nicholson's father was an alcoholic who could rarely hold a job, and the family was often evicted from their rented dwellings. Following their last eviction, the Nicholsons began living in tenant houses on farms. "These houses were shacks, really," says Nicholson. "We never had indoor plumbing during my entire childhood, and we often had no electricity."
Nicholson walked a mile to a one-room schoolhouse that offered eight grades. Often, he was humiliated by his family's circumstances. "We were the poorest family in the school," he says. "The other kids teased us. I remember being teased for wearing two different shoes because I didn't have a pair that matched." Rather than give in to despair, however, Nicholson's mother was able to imbue her children with a competitive nature. "She used to tell us that we were just as smart as anybody else. She would say, 'If you don't let this get to you, and if you work hard, study hard, and pray hard, then in this country you will still have great opportunities.' So that's what we did. On the playing fields that were level-academics and sports-we did very well."
When Nicholson was eight, he went to work for the Elmira Greeting Card Company. He walked from farm to farm selling cards and stationery. For every $100 of goods he sold, he was able to keep $50. He opened a bank account and used his income to buy food for the family. "My older brother didn't live with us until he was 15," says Nicholson. "He was raised by an aunt. My mother needed my sister to help with the other children, so I was the one who had to earn money for the family."
Living with an alcoholic father was difficult for everyone. "It's a terrible disease," says Nicholson. "You never knew who was going to come home. If my father came home sober, he could be charming and pleasant. But if he came home drunk, everyone suffered. I was often angry as a child because my father couldn't take care of us. I vowed that I would never live that way or cause anyone else to live that way. I became very goal-oriented and determined. I didn't understand alcoholism then, but I do now and have come to terms with what this disease did to us. I'm no longer bitter about it."
Nicholson's older brother, who had gone to Iowa State on a scholarship, received an appointment to West Point. After one year, however, the family could not afford a train ticket that would return him to West Point. Most of the local railroad tracks had washed out during a flood and the Great Northern Railroad hired 15-year-old Jim Nicholson to help put it back together. He worked with a rough crowd of men who lived in bunk cars and worked on the tracks throughout the year. He earned enough money to buy his brother a train ticket to West Point, with enough left over to buy the family a used car. At the time, Nicholson's father was institutionalized for his alcoholism, but his release marked the first time he could take a car to his odd jobs rather than riding a horse.
Nicholson worked every day, but he still found time to be active in school. He was a member of the National Honor Society, served on the student council, and was captain of the football team. His teachers and community members took an interest in him, and in 1957, he won an appointment to West Point. "Going to West Point directed the course of my adult life," he says. "The West Point motto is 'duty, honor, country,' and I've been guided by that philosophy ever since."
Upon graduation in 1961, Nicholson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. He became an Army Ranger and paratrooper and served on active duty for eight years. He was selected as one of two young officers in the U. S. Army to command a Davy Crockett platoon, a new tactical nuclear weapons unit. Later, as a French interpreter, Nicholson was on orders to serve in France as an assistant attaché. Instead, he volunteered to go to Vietnam. "I was a highly trained West Point officer and if there was a war going on, I wanted to be there." Upon his return to the United States, Nicholson earned a master's degree in public policy and education from Columbia University. In 1970, he was released from the Army, but he remained active in the reserves. He fully retired from the Army in 1991 with the rank of colonel.
Nicholson attended the University of Denver Law School full time and worked full time for an engineering consulting firm. During the last half of law school, he worked in the Denver mayor's office as an administrative assistant. Upon graduation, he was hired by a prestigious Denver law firm and, through hard work and determination, became a partner after just two years of practice. With a specialty in real estate and land use, Nicholson became general counsel to the Colorado Home Builders Association. In 1978, he left the law practice to pursue an opportunity to develop an upscale residential community half way between Denver and Boulder. In 1982, Nicholson's Ranch Country Club was named Community of the Year in Colorado. Nicholson also served as a commissioner on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission during this period of his career.
Nicholson had developed a love of politics while working in the mayor's office. He started working for grassroots campaigns and was elected Republican National Committeeman for Colorado in 1986. That position led to national politics as he represented his home state in the Republican Party. In 1993, he was elected vice chairman of the RNC for the western states. Three years later, he was elected chairman of the RNC, a position he held for two terms. From 2001 to 2005, Nicholson served as U. S. Ambassador to the Holy See. From 2005 to 2007, he served as U. S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Nicholson's advice to young people echoes what he learned at West Point. "The sense of duty they instilled in me to serve others is indelible," he says. "I implore young people to be public-spirited. Our country needs more involvement, and it is wonderfully satisfying for youth to serve others."
Humbled by his Horatio Alger Award, Nicholson says, "This organization is dedicated to the principles that have made this country great: the free enterprise system and the ability of an individual to make a difference because of the wonderful freedoms we have. I see this award as an opportunity to get even more involved and give something back. "