IONIA — Judge James Kennedy Nichols was a man of discipline and restraint — which made his rare partaking of a beer all the more pleasurable.
Nichols died last Thursday in Grand Rapids after a brief battle with pneumonia. He was 89 years old.
Nichols practiced as an attorney in Ohio and Michigan for more than two decades before being elected judge of 8th Judicial Circuit Court in Ionia and Montcalm counties, serving from 1991 to 1996.
A graduate of Ionia High School, Albion College and Capital University Law School, Nichols also served with the Army in the South Pacific during World War II.
While attending college, he took a summer job at an Army equipment plant in Ohio. That’s where he met another college student, Nancy Ann Sausser, during a morning coffee cart break at the plant. They dated nine months and were married in May 1953.
“He was very, very kind and particularly to me,” said Nancy Nichols, who resides in Ionia. “He was a wonderful husband. He was bright, right up to the end. He had such a good mind.”
The Nichols had three sons, Kim Nichols of Ada, David Nichols of Ohio and Eric Nichols of Greenville. All three sons were present with their father on his last day of life Thursday in a Grand Rapids hospital.
“He very, very seldom would have a beer,” Nancy Nichols said. “His very last day he wanted a beer and pretzels. Pretzels were his favorite food. At Spectrum, they brought him a beer and they brought him pretzels. He and his three boys had a beer and they toasted his life.
“He went out in glory, as far as his consumption of food,” Nancy said, with a smile in her voice.
Nichols was elected judge of Ionia/Montcalm’s circuit court in November 1990. He ran against and unseated Judge James Banks, who was seeking his third six-year term.
When he was elected judge, Nichols was 65 years old and the senior partner of Nichols, McKaig and Balice law firm in Ionia. He had practiced law in both Ohio and Michigan and previously worked as a prosecuting attorney in Morgan County, Ohio.
8th Judicial Circuit Court Chief Judge Suzanne Hoseth Kreeger said she has very fond memories of Nichols. She said attorneys often would joke about knowing they had lost an argument in Nichols’ court when he would preface his remarks and findings by saying, “With all due respect, Mr. or Ms. …”
“For me, he embodied all that is kind and good about mankind,” Kreeger said. “He was kind and thoughtful as a person, he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather, and as a judge he was always very calm and respectful to attorneys and litigants. He was a true gentleman, always taking time to inquire with genuine interest about others in the office and my family. He was very hard-working and diligent. I often saw his car at the courthouse long after many others had left for the day, and many times on weekends too.
“He certainly enriched my life and the lives of so many others,” she said. “I am honored to have known him and to have worked for him.”
Montcalm County Prosecutor Andrea Krause was an assistant prosecutor when Nichols was elected. She said she appreciated his guidance and demeanor on the bench as she was learning the ropes.
“Judge Nichols was one of our best judges,” Krause said. “He treated everyone who appeared before him with respect. He will be missed.”
Montcalm County Sheriff Bill Barnwell was a lieutenant when Nichols was elected judge.
“I was very sad to hear of his passing,” Barnwell said. “I remember him as a fair but firm judge who was well-respected by law enforcement. He was also a very nice person and a true gentleman, both on and off the bench.”
Nichols could not run for re-election due to age restrictions. In retirement, Nancy Nichols said she and her husband enjoyed their yearly monthlong trip to Florida in the winter. She said her husband was an avid sports fan and passionately followed the Detroit Tigers and college football games on TV.
Nichols is survived by his wife and three sons, along with eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Memorial services are scheduled for 2 p.m. today at First Presbyterian Church in Ionia with visitation one hour prior to the service at the church. Lake Funeral Home in Ionia is in charge of arrangements.