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Charles Nichols, Sr.

Charles Nichols, Sr.

Advisor to President Johnson, Director of Vocational Education & Founder of Flying Club for Youth of Color

Born: Duluth, MN, United States
Heritage: African American

Never hurt anybody. Secondly, have more friends than enemies. And lastly, do anything you can to make others happy. It will rub off on you. Those are lessons from 82 years of life.

Charles Nichols, Sr.

Advisor to President Johnson, Director of Vocational Education & Founder of Flying Club for Youth of Color

I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, 82 years ago. In the ninth grade I became interested in aeronautic engineering. My teacher told me, “Negroes can’t be aeronautical engineers. No sense in signing up for that. Get a job working in a hotel.” I quit school in the ninth grade.

My father told me, “Son, in this house we have two kinds of people: workers or students. You are either a worker or a student. Make your choice now.” I went out to find a job the next day. I worked in the lumber mills and steel plants. Then I took a job at the country club shining shoes, with some hustling on the side. A member noticed my interest in planes and blueprints and encouraged me to go into drafting. He was the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Dunwoody. I was accepted into the program that fall.

I attended Dunwoody only for a few months. I was rooming with a couple of men who attended the University of Minnesota. They started calling me a “Dumb-woody” student and teased that I wouldn’t even know how to enroll at the U of M. On a 25-cent bet, I went to the U of M to collect enrollment information and the timing couldn’t have been better; I entered the enrollment office and was handed a stack of papers to fill out before I could explain my intentions. I received a call a few weeks later saying I needed to pay $35.50 to complete the enrollment process and be accepted.

I met my future wife soon after beginning at the U of M. Much to our parents’ protests, we married after only our second year of college. She had a rare heart disease and wasn’t expected to live long. We did not want to waste any of that time! We raised five of our own children and “adopted” 23 “strays” through friendships and an open placesetting at the table. I lost my wife 12 years ago.

I studied industrial education at the U of M and also worked to support my family during that time. After graduation I taught electronics in the Minneapolis Public Schools. It was tough to support five children on a teacher’s wage so I moved into administration. The school asked me to design a school for high school dropouts. I developed the Work Opportunity Center to meet that need.

I became director of vocational education for Minneapolis Schools. Because of the success of the vocational programs and the Work Opportunity Center, I was contacted by the office of President Johnson and the Secretary of Education to advise Congress on educational programs. I worked in Washington, DC, for over 12 years, mostly on weekends. I was also doing educational consulting and covering many miles across the country. It was during that time that I started flying.

While working in Minneapolis, I was also involved in the design for MCTC. As part of my doctoral program through Colorado I helped design a school similar to that of IDDS , very open. I worked in that field for a number of years and built schools in Minneapolis and Anoka related to aviation.
Flying had always been an interest of mine. When the opportunity came to take flying lessons I jumped on it. Little did I know I would suffer from airsickness and I struggled through that for my lessons. I wanted to share the joy of flying and started a flying club at the Crystal Airport for youth of color.

My greatest achievement was raising those five children and getting them through school. Having your youngsters grow up and be successful in their own right and to love you, that’s an achievement. My children grew up to be a nurse, a teacher, a manager at Northwest Airlines, a manager at Xerox, and one works at the University of Minnesota.

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Reach Out & Spread Your Wings!

Honoring Charles Nichols, Sr.

Reach Out & Spread Your Wings!
Honoring Charles Nichols, Sr.

The longer you stay in school
The smarter you get, I believe
The same goes for your parents
Reach out and spread your wings

I was born with a set of good parents
Who took care of me from the start
I did some dumb things
I did some smart things
I quit school back in the ninth grade
It was a dumb thing for me to do
Then I got smarter, went to Dunwoody
Then to college to get a degree
I got married we had five children
Could not support them
on a teacher’s wage
From teaching to administration
Adopted twenty-three kids
along the way
Designed a school
for high school drop-outs
Who like me did a very dumb thing
Through their successes,
President Johnson
Called me up to work in D.C.
It was there I started flying
It was there I got my wings
Bought my own plane began to travel
Where I saw magnificent things
Make a place at your table
For the stranger passing through
There’s no greater life achievement
Then raising children who love you
Never hurt anybody
Have more friends than enemies
Do anything to make people happy
Always help others spread their wings

Words by LARRY LONG with Linda Siverson-Hall’s 4th & 5th grade class, FAIR Downton School. (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

© Larry Long 2006 / BMI