His prophecy, he later wrote in an essay, was fulfilled not in his favor. After a decade of investigative projects for several Philadelphia publications — about outlaw motorcycle gangs and the city’s violent black underworld — editors at the Daily News, the tabloid where he then worked, removed him from the enterprise beat in the late 1970s after numerous conflicts.
He spent the next three years on beats he described as the “netherworld of a newsroom outcast” — working the overnight cops beat or covering the farthest ring of outer suburbia. He felt he had reached a dead end. In a way, he had. In 1982, he was asked to become the paper’s first obituary writer.
Mr. Nicholson, who spent the next 19 years as one of the country’s most influential chroniclers of “common man” obituaries, the everyday Joes and Joannes who labored on docks, drifted from one address to another and filled or fell off bar stools, died Feb. 22 at a hospital in Camden, N.J. He was 76. The cause was a heart ailment, said his brother Robert Nicholson.
The obituary-writing job took some adjustment. At first, Mr. Nicholson had to endure colleagues whose eyes betrayed a distinct sense of pity. The one upside, he figured, was having a desk seven floors above the main newsroom, a distance he relished. He readily agreed to an editor’s dictum about the parameters of his job. As he described it: “The newsroom handles the big guys, Nicholson writes about the nobodies.”
There was a sense of liberation, he said, in writing feature-length obituaries for people of seemingly meager accomplishments. His style, almost from the start, was colloquial but tart: “He had the digestive juices of a shark”; “They were married three months later and not because they had to.”
Local newspapers had long been home to obituaries about non-newsmaking citizens, filled with quotes as barren as an abandoned home and anecdotes as predictable as the sunrise. In that shopworn approach, flaws were never exposed. Lives, as the platitude went, were all well lived.
Mr. Nicholson was one of the first writers for a leading metropolitan daily to see the potential in redefining the community obit, to bring an audacious flair to the form.
He chose poker-playing grannies and a man he ranked as “a world-class scammer.” When detailing the life of a tradesman, such as a plumber, he tried to include at least one useful tip, like using hot water and Tide to clean a clogged toilet.
A sister-in-law of one Lou Koreck, a writ server, conjured a most unusual memory to convey his personality.
“I had unfortunately burned up my cat Smokey in the dryer,” she told Mr. Nicholson. “Lou gave me a book, ‘101 Uses for a Dead Cat.’ You loved him and, at the same time, you wanted to strangle him.”
One of Mr. Nicholson’s finest obits was a 1993 ode to a man named Christopher Kelly. “Society today,” he wrote, “does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side.”
Another, in 1988, was for a 64-year-old construction worker named Thomas Robinson but universally known as Moose Neck. His brother was quoted as saying, “He was interested in going around asking people, ‘Have you got a dollar?’ I’m not going to tell you a lie. Moose was a drinker. He’d go around and ask people for money, and they’d give him anything he wanted. Everybody fell in love with him.”
Readers responded, and Mr. Nicholson gained national attention. Newspapers from California to Georgia began to parrot his approach, and he was featured by author Marilyn Johnson in her acclaimed 2006 book about obituaries, “The Dead Beat.” In an interview Saturday, she described him as a “remarkably perceptive man with a talent for memorializing his neighbors.”
James David Nicholson was born in Philadelphia on May 30, 1942, and grew up accompanying his family on his father’s Marine Corps assignments. He was an Eagle Scout in childhood and worked construction and in oil fields as a young man.
He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1964, while serving in the Marine Corps Reserve. He later was in the Army Reserve as a counterintelligence officer and retired in 2002 with the rank of lieutenant colonel, with tours of duty in Panama and on the U.S.-Mexico border.
His wife, Betty Pratt, died in 2011; they were separated, but he cared for her during her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Survivors include three sons, David G. Pratt of Prescott, Ariz., Jeffrey B. Pratt of San Francisco and James S. Nicholson of Round Rock, Tex.; two brothers; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Nicholson had a peripatetic career, working at nearly 10 newspapers, three magazines and a radio station — and stints as a private investigator in Philadelphia and a police intelligence analyst in Camden, N.J. — before landing at the Daily News by the late 1970s. He lived in Gloucester City, N.J., and described his retirement to the King’s Journalism Review, a Canadian publication: “I watch TV, smoke Camels and drink black coffee.”
In 1987, he received the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ first Distinguished Writing Award for Obituary Writing. More than 20 years later, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers honored him with a lifetime achievement award.
Mr. Nicholson recognized the enduring skepticism toward his specific craft, the burying of people others might dismiss as “nobodies.”
“Who would you miss more when he goes on vacation,” he often said as a rejoinder, “the secretary of state or your garbage man?”
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