By Gail Wood
“I don’t draw pictures or do carpentry,” Nichols said with a grin. “But one thing I can do is talk.”
Every fall for over 50 years, Nichols was the Friday night guest in homes throughout the South Sound. People turned on their radios to listen to Nichols talk as he gave his account of that night’s hometown football game.
“I hate to say gift because that sounds like bragging,” Nichols said. “But ever since I was a little kid, I was able to talk. And talk a lot.”
His gift for gab became a South Sound treasure. From 1954 as a student majoring in communications at the University of Washington to 2012 as the play-by-play sports announcer for KGY, Nichols talked, giving listeners an account of a local high school football or basketball game. Now, at age 78, the voice is off the radio.
“I miss it,” he said. “But you adjust. You move on.”
Now, Nichols does his talking around a table in his Tumwater home, playing bridge with friends. Or at the Valley Athletic Club, when he’s walking. The talker still talks. Just not on the radio.
The Vin Scully of the South Sound had an infatuation with play-by-play announcing early in his life. Listening to Leo Lassen, the radio sports announcer of the Seattle Rainiers from 1931 to 1960, helped teach Nichols the trade. When Nichols was doing his paper route as a kid living in Shelton, he’d announce an imaginary game as he walked down the streets, tossing newspapers onto a porch.
By the time he was a UW freshman, Nichols was ready for the real deal. With John Cherberg as the Huskies head football coach, the kid from Shelton began broadcasting Husky games on the school’s FM station, UOW. Eventually, Darrell Royal and then Jim Owens became head coach and a kid named Bobby Dunn took over at quarterback. Dunn became the long-time football coach at Olympia High School and a friend of Nichols.
After graduating, Nichols’ first full-time radio job was in Moses Lake with KSEM in 1958. A year later, Nichols, missing the South Sound, hooked up with Centralia’s KELA, doing news and sports there for three years. In 1962, he became the assistant sports editor at The Olympian newspaper and two years later hooked up with KGY for the first time to announce games.
In 1966, Nichols made another career change when he was hired to perform public relations duties for Alcoa and moved to Vancouver. Missing Olympia, Nichols moved back to the area two years later to work for The Evergreen State College. Jobs with Tumwater School District and Puget Power followed and he was elected for two terms as county commissioner in the 1990s.
“I must have had a low boredom threshold or something,” Nichols said with a chuckle about his career.
The jobs changed. But Nichols’ love for radio broadcasting never faded. In 1969, KGY and Nichols hooked up again and that lasted until 2012, when the Voice of the South Sound made his final signoff.
Through all those years, Nichols had a pay-the-bills job. Radio was a hobby, a passion. Chasing a buck wasn’t what drove him to go to small gyms or tiny press boxes to broadcast a game.
“The money wasn’t what it was all about,” Nichols said. “It was about doing something I really enjoyed.”
Nichols, who had a similar delivery to long-time WSU announcer Bob Robertson, mastered the art of creating drama. He’d punctuate an Olympia Bears first down or a North Thurston Rams touchdown with excitement. It was a narrative with enthusiasm, not with a droning monotone.
“Today, everybody tries to be really cool. I was excitable,” Nichols said. “Dave Niehaus got to be that way for the Seattle Mariners. The more excited he got, the better.”
In 1980, Nichols teamed up with Larry McMillan. It became the perfect team. Nichols, with his paint-a-picture style, was the ideal play-by-play announcer. McMillan, as a former jock who played football, gave the colorful insight to a play. And both of them always followed Nichols’ rule.
“If you can’t say something good about a kid don’t say anything,” Nichols said. “I didn’t criticize a kid ever. And I wasn’t hired to criticize coaches.”
McMillan and Nichols were the perfect team, never stepping on each other’s sentences. They had a rhythm and McMillan knew when it was his turn.
“Dick had a professionalism, an attention to detail,” McMillan said. “He always made sure the broadcast was done in a timely way. He was never late. He had a commitment to the coaches and kids.”
Even today when Nichols gets a chance to talk at an award presentation bearing his name to 14 local high school seniors at an Olympia Rotary luncheon, he makes his pitch about lessons learned from sports. While Nichols never played high school sports, he appreciated the lessons of athletics that went beyond the scoreboard.
“What’s really corny is to talk about teamwork, loyalty, goal setting, and handling defeat,” Nichols said. “Cooperation, accountability, responsibility. All those things are there for athletes to be taught and learned.”
Once after a playoff loss, former Capital High School boys basketball coach Bob Dickson found Nichols after the game and gave him a pat on the back and a compliment that he hasn’t forgotten.
“He said to me, ‘Do you know that KGY sports is the big time for these kids,’” Nichols said.
And it was. For over 40 years with KGY, Nichols experienced the big time in a small town. At times in his career, he pondered chasing the big time in radio, but he was happy and content to keep it local.
“My big dream was to have broadcast the University of Washington Huskies,” Nichols said. “I might have been able to pursue that at some point.”
But South Sound sports fans are glad Nichols stayed here, bringing excitement to local games with his announcing for half of a century.
“It was fun,” Nichols said. “It didn’t have to be NBC or something like that for me to really do something that I loved doing. I’ve been very fortunate.”