I spent a week at the home of Donald and Dorothy Nicholl at Betley, Staffordshire; while she stayed behind minding the house, he acted as guide through Wales, with extended time in Aberystwyth and Cardiff. Dr. Nicholl knew the country and its language, and he spoke it with eloquence to the delight of those who were especially interested in its medieval origins. We visited several sites, for he was a brilliant navigator, albeit one with terminal cancer. There was no fear of death in professor Nicholl, nor was there of mortality; he was confident of his standing before the maker. As we walked together through various districts where he longed to return, it was the last pilgrimage he would make through Wales, and thus his tone was especially reflective. His love for the country was manifested as he introduced his favorite sites and commented on their antiquity through each city we ventured.
As we returned home, there was a renewed sense of comfort in his manner, for he was devoted to friends and family. However, at night a host of personal demons attacked his memories, for he stayed up through most nights, sometimes drinking to harness the images he saw at concentration camps and the battlefield during the war. These recollections haunted him in the dark, but he seldom spoke of them in the daylight. One night, around 3:00 am, as we shared a bottle of port, he opened his mind and let a few demons loose, figuratively, of course. He left the room and returned with words taken from the walls of the death camps he visited. Dr. Nicholl shed tears as he asked rhetorically how humans could treat others in such a manner. He questioned why evil was so easily manifested and why love was so difficult to sustain.
Hearing his lament shook me to the core, for he truly wondered if there was a future for humanity without repentance. As the night grew older, the more profound he became, as he shared a notion of human potential more graciously than expected. He chastised me in advance never to give up the library, for in such literature the beloved labor of scholars is preserved. The esteemed academic made me promise to pursue my calling, in whatever form it evolved and to remember that my only purpose in life was to reach my full potential. His words were not consoling, since they were spoken with the knowledge that death awaits us all. “Give thanks daily, even hourly,” he insisted, “for that is the true liturgy of the heart.” To this day I recall the life in his eyes that saw the world through a prism of tears.
The six-foot, six-inch professor Nicholl was a geode with a rough exterior that protects hidden gems within his soul. Despite his declining health, he swam a considerable distance each morning as a man who defied mortality. He initially resisted the interview, not wanting to draw attention to the past, and he often redacted the thoughts captured on tape, as he replied to each inquiry. I sent him a copy of the printed interview but received no reply. I concluded that was a way of denying his own value amidst the failure of humanity to preserve life at all cost. However, his wife of nearly fifty years wrote me a letter shortly after he passed away and expressed his pleasure with the article. She wanted to make certain that this great theologian, who called her “a Pennine village lass,” was laid to rest without a debt of gratitude.
To read the official obituary or Dr. Nicholl, click here.