To those who knew him, it’s easy to describe John Nicol.
“What you see is what you get,” is a common description, a refrain those who knew and loved him found especially fitting.
He was respected. A masculine man, if there ever was one. A man who loved the outdoors and a man who carried things, dragged stuff, broke down doors, ran into burning buildings and saved lives. A man who did his job and did it well,. He was without fluff, without pretension.
Nicol, 47, died Monday while riding an ATV with a friend in Lewis County when he hit a bed of gravel, lost control and was ejected.
“He died doing something he loved,” the Rev. Richard Carlino said matter-of-factly Saturday morning during the funeral for the Schenectady Fire Department captain at St. John the Evangelist Church.
Nicol, a man who devoted his life to his country and to his community, was honored in death with all the ceremony and heart such a man deserves. The Schenectady Pipe Band led a dozen rows of uniformed firefighters, police officers and paramedics into the church. Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and members of the City Council marched solemnly into the palatial church, which lent an air of heightened ceremony with its high arches, gables, ornate statues and Italian marble.
The rhythmic tapping of feet sounded slightly above a chorus of “How Great Thou Art” and “America the Beautiful.” Sun poured in through stained glass windows, lapping over hard wooden pews filled with service people and those who love them.
“Those of you who aren’t in the fire service might not understand when I say that in some cases, fighting fires isn’t as difficult as being here today,” said Schenectady Fire Chief Michael DellaRocco. “Some fires will break your heart, though, and we feel that today.”
Nicol was a Schenectady native. He graduated from Mont Pleasant High School and attended SUNY Maritime College in New York City before joining the U.S. Army. He joined the Schenectady Fire Department in 1990, and was promoted to captain in 2006.
His fellow firefighters knew him as a straightforward guy of great character, said DellaRocco.
“Capt. Nicol was known for his exceptional personality,” he said. “Our most senior officers commended him for his initiative and his ability to get a job done. He knew his job, and he was respected. And he, in turn, respected his brothers and sisters in service.”
DellaRocco shared an excerpt from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, “Requiem,” that reminded him of Nicol.
“Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter, home from the hill,” he spoke, choking back tears along with family in the pews.
Nicol’s two children, Stephanie and Joshua, shared memories of falling off bikes and their father helping them back on, looking at him with respect, knowing he devoted his career to “touching the lives of others.”
Jim Wolford, pastor of the Gallupville Gospel Church, let a column by the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan speak for him. “Welcome Back, Duke,” was written a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and commended the “men who are welders, who do construction, men who are cops and firemen.”
Wolford read aloud for some time, sharing Noonan’s stream of consciousness about being in the city, in the midst of the rubble, and witnessing a community cheer on men who put fires out, who dug people out of the rubble, who saved the city with physical courage.
“And as the workers would go by — they would wave to us from their trucks and buses, and smile and nod — I realize that a lot of them were men who hadn’t been applauded since the day they danced to their song with their bride at the wedding. And suddenly I looked around me at all of us who were cheering. And saw who we were. Investment bankers. Orthodontists. Magazine editors. In my group, a lawyer, a columnist and a writer. We had been the kings and queens of the city, respected professionals in a city that respects its professional class. And this night we were nobody. We were so useless, all we could do was applaud the somebodies, the workers who, unlike us, had not been applauded much in their lives.”
“I could read more,” Wolford said, looking up from the papers he was holding at the podium and out over the crowd of grieving men and women, “but I just want to say, Captain Nicol, we applaud you. Thank you.”