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US Army Lt. Colonel Jim Nicholson, Not Your Average "GI Joe"

By Bill Cleary

Jim Nicholson, a Gloucester City resident, was asked by Marilyn Johnson, author of *THE DEAD BEAT, to describe himself. Nicholson replied, “I don’t do much self-analysis. I’m not a complicated guy. There are not many moving parts here. I’m a pretty simple man.”

If people only knew the real Jim Nicholson.

A graduate of Gloucester City High School, Class of 1960, Nick_2 Nicholson has lived three lives over a span of 66 years. “Modest, quiet, and low-keyed you would never know from looking at him that this man has ice water running through his veins,” said his good friend Bill Tourtual.

Tourtual said Nicholson has been responsible for taking down bad guys for over 35 years and yet rarely if ever talks about his adventures with his friends or family.

Besides raising a family, serving in the Marines and then joining the Army reserves, he has worked a full-time job as an investigative reporter and journalist until his retirement in 2001. And in each life he has excelled without much fanfare.

Tourtual said earlier this summer the 66-year-old, Lt. Colonel James Nicholson (Ret), was asked by the Army to come back to active duty to serve his country one more time.

Nicholson, whose specialty is counterintelligence, accepted the offer and shipped out to the theater of war in the Middle –East last month.

This is nothing new for Col. Jim Nicholson. (photo above)

Over the course of his Army career he was assigned to a number of covert operations in his 20 plus years in the military.  In the 1980’s he spent time running the surveillance on Noriega and preparing for the invasion of Panama. Other counterintelligence adventures included trips to such hot spots of the world as South America, Tajikistan and on the Mexican border.

“This Simple Man” also had a remarkable career as an investigative reporter for newspapers in the Philadelphia area. Some of his featured work included stories on murder, the Philly Mob, the riots, and outlaw motorcycle gangs to mention a few. Five of his series led three different Philly-area papers to recommend him for Pulitzers. He also was a radio announcer for a time.

Sean Patrick Griffin, author of *Black Brothers Inc, writes …..Investigative reporter Jim Nicholson was the first journalist to lift the lid on the ‘Black Mafia’. The gang operated a multi-million illegal drug business in North Philadelphia and up and down the east coast. His cover stories for the Philadelphia Magazine and Today revealed a vicious, insidious syndicate that was unknown to the wider population.

He went right to the top, and called Mayor Frank Rizzo. Back in 1970, Nicholson had spent hours at then-Police Commissioner Rizzo’s home and interviewed Rizzo while he watched himself on a national television special called Super Chief. The two hit it off, so much so that Rizzo offered Nicholson a position as public relations officer with the department. Nicholson politely declined, despite the substantial increase in pay the job would have provided. Rizzo was apparently not offended by the rejections, because when Nicholson called him requesting assistance on the proposed Black Mafia project in 1973, Rizzo called Police Commissioner Joseph F. O’Neill and told him to provide Nicholson access to the pertinent information.

In 1982 Jim was tired of investigative reporting and jumped at the chance to take over the obit page for the Philadelphia Daily News. In May 2008, seven years after he retired, Jim won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers.


*The Dead Beat-Author Marilyn Johnson …In that position Nicholson received national attention when ASNE, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, gave him a Distinguished Writing Award for his richly detailed, colorful obituaries of ordinary Philadelphians. The Daily News let him work an eight-or nine month year on the obits desk, and the rest of the time he threw himself into counterintelligence adventures.

After he retired from the Philadelphia Daily News in 2001 he moved to Washington DC to continue his work in counter-intelligence. At the same time he was taking care of his wife Betty who had Alzheimer. When his wife’s sickness required full-time care they moved back to Gloucester City to be closer to his immediate family and devote more time to her. He became Betty’s primary caregiver working 24/7 at home to make her comfortable. In his spare time he continued to do some part-time consultant work via computer in counterintelligence for a friend whose business was located in the Washington DC/Virginia area.

Asked about his devotion to Betty he told author Johnson, “I was separated for eight years from this woman, not a good marriage, doesn’t matter whose fault it was, and then she got ill, and I came back to take care of her,” Jim said. “I wasn’t doing anything else. I’m not as good as the people I’ve written about in the obits.”

When the Army called and stressed that his help was needed for this special mission Jim made arrangements to have another family member take care of Betty for the time he will be away.

Most people in their 60’s are looking forward to retirement. Col. Nicholson, who describes himself as just “A Simple Man” has no reservations about placing himself in Harm’s Way one more time for his country.

Patriotism’, Thomas Paine observed, is not best measured in times of national comfort and quiet. It is in times of crisis, when the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots have retreated to the safety of official talking points and unquestioning loyalty that those who truly understand the meaning and merit of the American experiment come to its defense.

Thomas Paine no doubt had men like Jim Nicholson in mind when he spoke those words so many years ago. Tonight offer up an extra prayer for Jim and for all soldiers who go beyond the call of duty to protect our country in these terrible and dangerous times.

*THE DEAD BEAT, Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. The so-called egalitarian obituary was pioneered, Ms. Johnson argues, by a reporter named Jim Nicholson, who worked at The Philadelphia Daily News. During the early 1980’s, Mr. Nicholson started writing obits in which “people whose lives had been considered dull as linoleum to the general public were offered up as heroes of their neighborhood and characters of consequence.” Author Marilynn Johnson, HarperCollins Publishers

* BLACK BROTHERS Inc., a true story about The Black Mafia one of the bloodiest crime syndicates in modern US history. From its roots in Philadelphia’s ghettos in the 1960’s, it grew from a rabble of street toughs to a disciplined, ruthless organization based on fear and intimidation. Known in its “legitimate” guise as Black Brothers, Inc., it held regular, minute meetings, appointed investigators, treasurers and enforcers, and controlled drug dealing, loan sharking, numbers rackets, armed robbery and extortion. Author Sean Patrick Griffin, Milo Books Publishers