Husband, father, friend, engineer. Born on Oct. 4, 1942, in Georgetown, British Guyana; died on July 30, 2013, in Oakville, Ont., of bile duct cancer, aged 70.
Clarence Nichols was a humble man. When he was 20, he left his native British Guyana to pursue his education in the United States, where he became a civil engineer. In 1963, he was listed in Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities & Colleges, and went on to become the first black civil engineer hired by the Southern Pacific Railway.
But if you were lucky enough to chat with him over a coffee or some roti and curry, he was just as interested in discussing the Blue Jays or his garden, or in sharing photos of his granddaughters, as he was about his passion for engineering.
Clarence was born in Georgetown, the youngest of the seven children. He was the first member of his family to go to university and decided to study in the United States because it offered better job opportunities. He earned a degree in civil engineering from Humboldt State College in California, graduating with honours. He then worked for Southern Pacific at its head office in San Francisco. Before his hiring, black men worked only as porters on the company’s trains.
A year later, he realized he missed academia and headed to Oregon State University in 1967 to complete a master’s degree in civil engineering, with a minor in soil mechanics. That same year, he wrote to his sweetheart in Guyana, Audrey Knight, asking for her hand in marriage. They married in Georgetown on July 20, 1968. Forty-five years later, Audrey still has the letter, which was warmly shared over a cup of tea with friends and family the evening before his funeral.
After marrying, Clarence and Audrey lived briefly in San Francisco where again he worked for Southern Pacific. They were opposed to the Vietnam War, however, and decided to immigrate to Toronto in 1970, where they settled and raised two children. For 43 years, Clarence worked for engineering firm Hatch Associated, serving in many roles, including becoming an associate and leading the civil structural group.
A mentor to many young engineers at Hatch, Clarence was known as a stickler for doing things right the first time. Along with his passion for his work, he was also a dedicated family man and devout Roman Catholic. He encouraged his children to work hard, be kind and never give up; he was always there to cheer them on at hockey, soccer and basketball games.
He was immensely proud of Lorraine, who became a teacher, and Anthony, a surgeon. Clarence adored his three granddaughters and photo-documented their wild spirits with paparazzi-like enthusiasm. “Grand Pa” set up the backyard sprinkler for them, took them to the park and went for bike rides with them. Family was of paramount importance; he and Audrey were the first of their families to settle in Canada, and helped six family members to move here as well.
Clarence was diagnosed with bile duct cancer in the fall of 2010, and was incredibly positive throughout the nearly three years he battled the disease. He encouraged fellow patients in the chemotherapy suite at Sunnybrook Hospital to stay optimistic. His family will never forget his contagious laughter, bravery and determination.
Clarence loved his backyard and listening to the resident cardinal on quiet mornings. When he passed, a cardinal was perched on the bird feeder outside his window at the Ian Anderson House hospice. His friends and family are reminded of his spirit each time bright red feathers flutter by.
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