The central story of the most recent edition of Reveille is about Mike “Coach Nick” Nicholson, who recently retired after 39 years of educating, coaching, and inspiring our students.
It’s a famous story by now. It was 1978.
A 25-year-old Mike Nicholson, was fresh out of Hampden Sydney University with a Bachelor of Science degree. He was living in a house with several other graduates, and he was looking for a job teaching science. He looked through a booklet of local schools that were hiring and found the name Admiral Farragut Academy. “I thought, ‘a military school? I don’t think I can work there!’” Mike, known fondly today as Coach Nick, recalled.
Coach Nick in 1978, his first year of teaching He applied anyway, and was granted an interview with Headmaster Richard “Dick” Wheeler. This being his first interview out of college, he had to buy a brand new suit. “I could’ve sworn I’d removed all the tags,” he explained, still brimming with energy 39 years later. “But when I got home, my roommate noticed a huge ‘SEARS’ tag hanging from my arm!”
It was perhaps because of this youthful oversight, in addition to Mike’s intelligence, honesty, and enthusiasm during the interview, that Mike was quickly hired as the Junior School science teacher. And though the divisions have shifted and changed over the years, Mike’s position as science teacher has remained constant. Most recently, he taught the Lower School 4th-7th grade classes.
“I grew up here,” Mike said. “I’ve watched so many kids grow up here. I’ve taught them and watched them graduate, and then years later I’ve taught their kids.”
Mike has not only taught and inspired kids with science, but he’s done so on the track, soccer field, and basketball courts as well. He’s coached cross country and Middle School track and field for most of his years at Farragut, and he coached Soccer from 1979 through the early 90’s and was assistant coach for basketball for several years. In 1991 and 1994 he helped bring two Florida State Championship titles to Farragut. This long history of coaching kids has earned him the ubiquitous nickname, “Coach Nick”.
Coach Nick’s way of stimulating excitement in his students quickly made him a favorite teacher. So much so, in fact, that in 2001, he was selected to carry the Olympic Torch in Daytona Beach.
“I really wasn’t expecting it!” said Coach Nick. “I was at my parents’ house for the summer, and my mother came in with the phone, telling me it was the Olympic committee. I didn’t believe her. When I finally answered, they told me that a student had written to them, telling them why I deserved to carry the torch. The letter had moved them so much that they not only selected me to carry the torch, but they selected the student who wrote the letter as well.”
That day was not without its hitches. Being very soon after 9/11, security was so tight that instead of running with the torch, they had Coach Nick and the student in buses that drove them to the transfer point. Not only that, but somehow the film in the cameras was rendered unusable. “I don’t have a single picture to prove I did it,” Coach Nick laments. “I did get to keep the torch, though. It’s currently in the Farragut Museum.”
Coach Nick has 39 years worth of stories, and he loves sharing them all. Some of his most famous contributions to the school are his ghost tours. “There have been nights when cadets couldn’t sleep in their own dorms because of those stories,” Coach Nick laughs.
“They’re all true of course,” winked Coach Nick, “but one of the most true is one that happened a few years back. Two cadets came running to my room at 0600, completely terrified. The night before, around two in the morning, their door opened, and, they said, an old man in a brown robe came into their room, looked into each bunk, and left. The boys were so afraid, they couldn’t leave their beds until it was light out. We searched the entire school and we even checked local nursing homes to see if there were any patients missing, but we came up with nothing. It wasn’t a prank; I saw the true fear in their eyes, so I know they were telling the truth.” True or not, they’re great memories for students, faculty and staff alike.
“The first time I went on one of those tours,” says Assistant Head of Lower and Upper School and also director of Summer@Farragut, Jennifer Grabowski, who has worked with Coach Nick since 1996 and has known him since she was 16, “I was so scared that I made him walk me to my car. I feel silly about it now, but they were really scary!”
“I remember one day I walked into my classroom to find Coach Nick and a duck walking around the room,” said Sari Deitche, Science Department Chair and Biology teacher who has worked with Coach Nick since 2002. “As the duck was leaving me droppings, I asked Coach Nick what he was planning to do with the duck. Coach Nick replied that he had rescued the duck and thought maybe I could use it to help teach Life Science. So he was feeding it cat food in my classroom so that it would be comfortable with me. Fortunately for me, when Coach Nick walked out of the room, the duck followed closely behind. But I knew what Coach Nick meant. Use the resources around you and involve the students. I just choose to use fish, geckos, and skinks that remain in their cages.”
Coach Nick is an inspiration to his colleagues as well as his students. “I have grown tremendously as a teacher thanks in part to Coach Nick’s guidance, support, and friendship,” Mrs. Deitche continued. “As a teacher, he has taught me to be passionate and hands-on. He has also helped me be a better Science Department Chair. Our department now has all the proper safety gear, which includes fire blankets. Coach Nick has probably personally tested all the safety equipment we have during his demonstrations!”
Coach Nick is not just a teacher. He is a passionate teacher who is in love with teaching. He is a mentor to students and faculty. He does not just teach a concept. Instead, he shows you the concept so that you as the learner will be involved and remember.
He may be retiring from Admiral Farragut Academy, but Coach Nick will always be a teacher. We will always learn from him and remember what he has shown us, shared with us, demonstrated for us, and simply taught us.
Coach Nick: Thank you for all that you have given to the students, faculty, and to the school. May you enjoy your retirement and visit us often.
“Coach Nick is an amazing teacher who is dedicated to his students and Farragut. He made science come to life.”
“My progress in running really parallels my progress in life. Without Coach Nick, I probably would never have continued running after sixth grade. He supplied me with the confidence and determination to press on.”
“Simply a phenomenal teacher and mentor. Truly instilled a love of science in my boys. I will always be appreciative of that.”
“I loved it when we went to the waterfront with Coach Nick, and when he had his Nichol-spasms!”
The Man With Big Shoes To Fill
Ironically, Henry, shoe size 14, is stepping into Coach Nick’s size 8.5 shoes at the same age Coach Nick joined Farragut.
The new Lower School science teacher, Henry Sadler, is a recent Eckerd College graduate with a B.S. in Marine Biology and a minor in Environmental Studies. He has a wide range of experience in teaching both in the classroom and out in the natural world, and strongly believes that science literacy leads to good citizenship. He is a SCUBA instructor, who has taught hundreds of students, and an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).
Henry has a deep love of nature and the ocean and loves to share his passions with all those around him. As a Marine Ecology teacher at the Island School in the Bahamas, he learned just how important it is to instill a passion for science in the minds of the next generation. In his free time, Henry spear fishes and fossil dives. Over the past few years, he has found Megalodon teeth (giant extinct shark), Mammoth teeth, ancient gator and mammal bones, and much more.
Originally Henry is from England but moved to St. Petersburg, Florida when he was young. His family moved again to Vermont but he loved Florida so much that he came right back and hasn’t left since.
Coach Nick is very excited about Henry taking over the Mills Science Center. “When Henry walked in, his eyes lit up,” Coach Nick said. “He immediately started pointing out all the collections I had in the classroom. He even perked up when he heard Josephine, and said, ‘is that a cockatoo I hear?!” and she immediately warmed to him. Which, as many know, Josephine doesn’t always play nice!”
Henry, welcome to the Farragut family!
Letter from an Alumnus and Former Student
Chris Malfant ‘93, then Battalion Commander and now Duke University Graduate and Vice President at AIG, wrote us this letter to honor Coach Nick.
Mike Nicholson touched so many lives during his 40 years at Farragut that we could all fill up a book with stories of his unselfish sacrifice on behalf of the students he taught, coached, and mentored. His passionate teaching in the classroom (who can forget that killer diagram of the sun he drew every year), his decades in the dorm as a dorm father, and his coaching ability inspired all who knew him.
With age you gain perspective and can review the pivotal points in life. These are the experiences that go to the core of the person you have become. I wish we could print all the stories that might begin to help convey the depth of impact Mike has had on hundreds and hundreds of cadets over the years. However, I will share one story and hope that it encapsulates the kind of impact Mike had on me and on fellow Farragut cadets.
I had just moved to Florida in the summer of 1986. I was a young kid from Michigan, new to the school, and new to the concept of boarding. Announcements were made about tryouts for the cross country team. Cross country? What’s that, I asked – not having any idea what was in store for me. I learned that all you needed to do was run three miles. That sounded long but I figured I would give it a whirl. We all gathered by the science center to run the “lollipop” in the neighborhood on the other side of 9th Avenue close to Park Street.
The terms of the tryout? “Everyone who finishes ahead of me makes the team,” Coach Nick said, and so off we went. The kids were strung out in a long line snaking through the neighborhood – panting, running, jogging, and some walking. At the end of the run, there I was and there Coach Nick was, dogging it a little bit to make sure that everyone who tried out made the team. He never cut anyone at this tryout and was willing to work with anyone who wanted to show up and put in effort.
I made the team, and started running for Farragut. I didn’t know then but my involvement with cross country and track would ultimately culminate in two state titles, a collegiate running career at Duke University, and being elected captain of my senior college team… all because Coach Nick decided to run a little slower that day.
I think the way Mike treats others is a direct result of the fact that he has a heart of gold and spirit of a lion.
What a great gift to be able to affect so many people over the years. Many of us may have started out our lives wanting to change the world. Mike changed the world for the better, one student at a time. His example and dedication set him apart – and I am extremely grateful to be able to call him my teacher, coach, mentor, and friend.