Byline: Amy Boerema Daily Herald Staff Writer
The brief life of James L. Nichols was touched by tragedy and abuse, triumph and success.
The legacy he left, though, has been forever secured in Naperville lore as one who influenced - and will continue to influence - the everyday lives of residents.
Perhaps more than any other local citizen, Nichols epitomized the American dream, a self-made man whose life reflected a battle of resilience overpowering adversity.
But the orphan-turned-professor, author and book publisher didn't enjoy his success for long. He died at age 44, never getting to see his three children grow up.
In his will, he left $10,000 each to the city of Naperville to build a library and to North Central College to build a gymnasium.
It was his role as "Naperville's benefactor" that earned him a spot among the 25 most influential residents in the city's 175-year history.
"Since Naperville's founding, no citizen has contributed more to the community's enrichment than James Nichols I," historian Genevieve Towsley wrote in 1961.
Nichols' gifts reflect what he valued most in life - health, education and family, says Dolle Nichols, who married Nichols' grandson.
He didn't have any of those assets growing up.
"No Horatio Alger hero suffered more hardship or injustices, nor had a greater determination to improve his lot," Towsley wrote.
Details about his early life are sketchy - not even known by him. But relatives say his birth name was not James Lawrence; he gave that to himself in honor of Navy Captain James Lawrence, whose saying "Don't give up the ship" was immortalized.
What is known is this: Nichols was born somewhere in Germany in 1851. His family brought him to America when he was about 6. But his mother died a couple years later during childbirth and his stepfather abandoned him.
"From that day, he was left friendless and alone, a waif with no one to care whether he lived or died," wrote Elizabeth Barnard Nichols, his wife.
Nichols bounced among foster homes, where he was often starved, beaten and neglected.
On his deathbed, he dictated early memories of sleeping on straw and in sheds, freezing and beaten until he was "black and blue from head to foot."
"He must have had a constant cold and every virus that existed then," Dolle Nichols said.
He had almost no formal education, but taught himself to read. He received a teaching certificate when he was 19 and worked as a teacher for five years at a Michigan seminary, managing to save $1,000. He had those funds with him when he arrived in Naperville in 1876.
It's a story that still amazes Dolle Nichols. "Who was this little boy who came here, and how did he get the tenacity to make his decisions with all the adversity he had?" she said.
Nichols graduated from North-Western - now North Central - College in 1880, $65 in debt. For eight years, he served as professor of the college's commercial department.
"He was a born teacher," Barnard Nichols wrote. "His students, now gray-haired, substantial businessmen and widely scattered, still rise up in grateful testimony for his help, not only in their studies, but in their personal problems as well. ... These close friendships formed one of the greatest joys of his life."
He was also popular with the female students, eventually marrying one, Elizabeth Barnard, on Aug. 18, 1886.
"When ... our engagement was announced, I was, at least in my own estimation, quite an object of envy among the girls! …