Sometimes you do not realize how much someone means to you until they are gone. I find it surprising though when I am touched by the death of someone I knew mostly tangentially. Wilson Nichols Jr., the former music director at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia that I attend, passed away into the great unknown on August 20th at the age of 61.
Wilson died in North Carolina from the complications of progressive diabetes. He struggled with diabetes during the entire time I knew him. I first ran into Wilson around 1997 when I started attending this church regularly. Most likely you have not been to a Unitarian Universalist Church. The one I attend is probably similar to most and is full of mostly white, mostly highly educated, mostly liberal and mostly older people. At the time, Wilson was likely around my age: in his early fifties. He wore large Coke-bottle glasses. I later learned that diabetes contributed to his glaucoma, which explained the glasses.
Wilson was not a particularly handsome man, although such attributes are always in the eye of the beholder. Yet, he was a hit with many of the parishioners. There was often a queue of people before and after services wanting to hug the guy. He was generous with his hugs as he was with his voice. As you might expect, music was his passion. Over the years, I have seen other music directors and accompanists at church, but none exuded his passion for music. It just leached out of him. He managed to make a living with his part time gig as the church music director and by giving music lessons to neighbors. He earned a Master of Arts degree in music, and led a number of chorales.
Originally, he led a chorale in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In his later years, he ran his own chorale, aptly named the Wilson Nichols Chorale. We parishioners were blessed to hear concerts twice a year at the church. Most of the membership attended even though the events were not official church functions. Membership in the chorale was by invitation only and Wilson was particular about whom he let on the chorale. My daughter Rosie, who sung in the church choir for a few years, was eventually invited to be in his chorale. It was during this time that I got to know Wilson on a more than superficial basis.
I suspected he was gay for years, in spite of the line of women queued to give him hugs, or maybe because of it. I never pry nor ask about such things, but during one service, he openly admitted his sexual orientation. I was still working through my own squeamishness with gays at the time. I thank Wilson for helping me sort through my own feelings. Logically I did not believe that gays should be discriminated against. Emotionally I had to work through my issues of interacting with gays. Some gays I have known enjoy teasing us straights. That might explain why I felt uncomfortable. With Wilson though, his force of personality was so large that his sexual orientation soon become moot. Since meeting and knowing Wilson, I never felt uncomfortable about a person’s sexual orientation again.
Sadly, over time, Wilson’s condition became more acute. His eyesight degraded to the point where he could no longer read music. He was hospitalized a number of times because of his worsening diabetes. He could still play the piano effortlessly. He had one of these minds that could hear a work of piano music and could often be able to play it afterward. He eventually sold his townhouse and moved to his native North Carolina where his brother and sister in law apparently took care of him in his decline.
For the most part me and my fellow parishioners are a musically inept bunch. I never learned to read music. Thank goodness for Wilson. With his enormous singing voice, he could overpower the rest of us, giving any hymn a resonance the rest of the congregation could not quite create. Wilson though was in his glory, not at weekly services when he sang boisterously while sitting at the piano, but at his twice-yearly chorale concerts. They were big deals. He hired a few instrumentalists. The chorale itself was buttoned down in black; men were expected to wear tuxedos. After the chorale progressed in, he strutted into the sanctuary to a thunderous applause. Then he would solemnly set himself down at the piano, for he was about to produce art. From there, he would both play the piano while somehow simultaneously directing the singers and instrumentalists. For me, the holiday concert was my big musical event of the year. A few soloists had voices that were a bit shrill, but overall he amassed quite a collection of free local vocal talent. His selections were a mixture of the usual and the eclectic. Sadly, our church sanctuary was never constructed for great acoustics. His concerts deserved a somewhat better venue than they received.
Now that he is gone from this world, what I miss and admired most about Wilson was his passion. It is harder to find passionate people today, as we are so wrapped up in our toys and stock portfolios. To Wilson, music was like a snort of cocaine. Music, in all its forms and flavors, kept him feeling enchanted.
A few years ago shortly before he retired to North Carolina, the Wilson Nichols Chorale gave one last concert, sadly not in our church where his presence was too awkward. Instead, we attended the concert at a small Episcopalian church in McLean. The concert was given to a greatly diminished audience.
Afterwards there was the usual reception. It was clear that by this point Wilson’s eyesight was mostly gone, so I made a point of telling him who I was. My daughter, who sang under his direction for many years, was also with me. He gave my daughter one of his world famous hugs and told her to visit him in North Carolina. Thinking I likely would not see him again, I told Wilson in a very heartfelt manner just what a joy it was to know him and to hear his music over the years.
Today at service during our Joys and Sorrows, I lit a candle in his memory and said some nice words about Wilson. It seems like most of the congregation had moved on years ago. Nevertheless, I could still hear his booming voice in the rafters. Wilson filled our small church with so much musical energy and passion. We were blessed to have him as our music director for so many years, and I was blessed to know him. In retrospect, my only regret is that I did not take the time to know this remarkable man even better.
Wilson’s spirit is out there and I for one feel it every time I attend services. I just wish I could get one more of his big hugs.