The educational journey of Charles Nichols took an unconventional turn one day.
A private pilot in the northern suburbs, Nichols was at a hangar in 1990 when he met Jesse Ventura campaigning for mayor of Brooklyn Park. They hit it off. When Ventura became governor of Minnesota a decade later, he appointed Nichols to head the Metropolitan Airports Commission that oversees one of the nation's busiest airports.
Nichols, 89, of Brooklyn Center, died late last month.
During his four years at the Airports Commission, Nichols sought to quash fears that tunnels being dug at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport would drain water from Lake Nokomis and other lakes.
He resisted efforts to scale back an early noise-mitigation program at the airport, warning in 2001 that doing so "will betray the public trust." He cast the deciding vote to extend a package of air conditioning, doors, windows, insulation, ventilation and roof-vent baffles to more than 3,000 homes.
Willing to take a stand, Nichols carved out a reputation for delegating work, a character trait that appealed to his boss.
"He and Jesse kind of had the same philosophy — if you surround yourself with people who are competent and allow them to do their jobs, things will work out," recalled Floyd Anderson, a neighbor and political supporter of Ventura who was a longtime friend of Nichols.
Fan of vocational training
Nichols struggled early in life. He dropped out of high school at age 15 but enrolled a few years later at Dunwoody Industrial Institute in Minneapolis. His daughter Linda Nichols Stokes tells how some college men bet Nichols a quarter that he wouldn't know how to enroll at the University of Minnesota. He did and was accepted.
He later earned bachelor's and master's degrees in industrial education and arts at the University of Minnesota and dedicated himself to teaching at Minneapolis public schools, where he became director of vocational, technical and industrial education.
"He saw it as a way for kids who weren't into math and sciences to express themselves and lead to employment," said Harvey Rucker, who worked with Nichols in the school system.
President Lyndon Johnson appointed Nichols in 1968 to the National Advisory Council on Vocational Education. In 1971 he was appointed to a similar Minnesota panel.
Anderson, who managed Ventura's run for Brooklyn Park mayor, also worked with Nichols at Minneapolis public schools and respected his organizational abilities. He brought the former professional wrestler to the hangar to get some advice from Nichols.
Nichols owned several airplanes and developed a business building and selling hangars after he left the schools. In 1999, Anderson called then-Gov. Ventura. "I said, Jess, you remember Chuck Nichols," and recommended him for the Airports Commission job.
Nichols was preceded in death by his wife, Elizabeth Young Nichols. He is survived by his children Penny Nichols, Linda Nichols Stokes, Charles Nichols, Jr., Bruce Nichols, Nancee Nichols, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and by partner Hope Abrahms and her son Darrell.