Jim Nichols, the longtime leader of Fort Worth engineering firm Freese and Nichols, died Feb. 11 at the age of 92.
Throughout his 66-year career at Freese and Nichols, Nichols was instrumental in providing dependable water supplies to communities across the state.
Nichols had served as chairman emeritus of the Freese and Nichols board since 2002. He previously had been board chairman (1988-2002) and president (1977-1988). Through this year, he continued to consult with clients, lead executive client visits, teach professional ethics classes for Freese and Nichols University and consult with project teams.
In an interview for a Fort Worth Business profile of Nichols in 2013, Freese and Nichols CEO Bob Pence noted that Jim Nichols was “a great role model for the young people around here.”
Still active as chairman emeritus of the 121-year-old consulting company, which provides engineering, architecture, environmental science, construction and planning services, Nichols told Fort Worth Business in 2013: “It’s a kind of high-sounding title, but doesn’t mean much, doesn’t have very many responsibilities. You’ve noticed they’ve got me sequestered back here as far in the corner as you can possibly get.”
Early in his career, he worked alongside the firm’s founding partners, Simon W. Freese and Marvin C. Nichols, Jim Nichols’ father. The younger Nichols worked for the firm as a rodman on survey crews while in high school, then attended Texas A&M University in 1941. During World War II, he served stateside as a radar technician for the U.S. Army signal corps, then returned to A&M after the war. An active member of the university’s American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) student chapter, Nichols earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1949 and master’s in civil engineering in 1950.
He began his professional career with Freese and Nichols in 1950. From the beginning, Nichols worked closely with some of the firm’s oldest clients, including Tarrant County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, which became the Tarrant Regional Water District, and the Colorado River Municipal Water District in West Texas. His first five years with the firm were spent in the field on a variety of West Texas projects. After relocating to the company’s Fort Worth headquarters in 1955, he continued to focus on projects for the growing cities of West Texas for the next 14 years. These included creating the multi-city water districts; helping cities to raise project funding; working on the design phase of dams, pipelines and pump stations; and providing construction services.
Nichols became a partner in the firm in 1956, specializing in water supply; water and wastewater treatment; and roads, bridges and airports. In his role as principal-in-charge of design, planning and construction administration for many water supply projects, he was instrumental in providing solutions to communities across the state in need of a dependable water supply.
Nichols was involved in several notable projects around the state. He served as principal-in-charge and consulting engineer for the 1982 design of the Richland Creek dam, spillway and water transmission facilities. This project resulted in the 44,750-acre Richland-Chambers Reservoir, the largest lake in the system supplying Fort Worth and Tarrant County and the third-largest lake wholly within Texas. At 6 miles long with a maximum height of 93 feet, it is one of the largest earthen dams in Texas.
Nichols served as the client representative to the city of Abilene for the Lake O.H. Ivie Water Transmission Facility. The firm’s design and construction management for this $40 million project, which had two pump stations and 51 miles of 36-inch pipeline, earned the Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award from the Texas Section of the ASCE and was nominated for a national ASCE award. The transmission system provided Abilene with a new water source. It helped alleviate concerns about water supply during drought and improve overall water quality.
But water projects were hardly the only area where Nichols had an impact. He was also instrumental in the completion of several aviation projects, including the development of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. He served as chairman of the Aviation Committee for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, as well as principal-in-charge of Freese and Nichols’ original work at DFW Airport in the early 1970s. Freese and Nichols currently leads program management for the $3.2 billion Terminal Renewal and Improvement Program.
Nichols was also heavily involved in various professional organizations and in community issues.
One of his favorite sayings, “Leave the woodpile a little higher than you found it,” was part of his personal as well as professional philosophy.
That philosophy tied into a key component of Nichols’ career later in his life, teaching classes around the state on professional ethics for Freese and Nichols University. FN University, as it is known, continues the mission of the firm’s founder, Maj. John B. Hawley, who believed that continuing education was essential to a professional engineering career.
“Professional ethics is determining what’s right and what’s wrong,” Nichols told Fort Worth Business in 2013. “The Golden Rule is sort of a basic principle in professional ethics. But it means more. We strive to have our clients feel like we’re their trusted adviser whenever they have a problem that they are not able to solve themselves. We feel like we have accomplished part of our mission if they look at us as someone that they can call and contact and get good advice from.”
Reflecting on his career in the FWB interview, Nichols said he had few regrets. “I think probably the biggest mistake I made was – and it was really true of my generation – is that we placed a higher priority on work than we should have,” he said. “I should have placed a higher priority on my family and my kids. I think that’s occurred in our society and in our generation.”
But Nichols said he believed he had helped the communities where he worked become better places to live. “I kind of have a saying here: ‘We try to leave the woodpile a little higher than we found it.’ I think I’ve done that,” he said
Nichols’ career brought him many appointments. In 2000, he was named to the Texas Board of Professional Engineers by Gov. George W. Bush; he was later named chairman by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2004, he was named an honorary member of ASCE, the organization’s highest honor. He also played an active role in the National Society of Professional Engineers, the Texas Society of Professional Engineers and the Texas Council of Engineering Companies.
Nichols was a life member of the National Water Resources Association and served as president of the Texas Water Conservation Association. He was appointed to a Texas Legislature special advisory committee to study the formation and operating procedures of state water districts and river authorities. He was also involved in water resource organizations including the American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Association of Texas.
A longtime supporter of educational institutions, he served as a trustee of the Texas A&M Research Foundation and chaired Texas Wesleyan University’s annual campaign drive. Additionally, he was elected to the University of Texas at Arlington chapter of Chi Epsilon, the national civil engineering honor fraternity for professional excellence, and received an honorary doctorate from Texas Wesleyan. His extensive leadership roles include chairing the boards for All Saints Episcopal Hospital (now Baylor All Saints Medical Center), the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Tarrant County. He was only the second consulting engineer to hold the chamber’s highest volunteer position; the first was his father, Marvin Nichols. Jim Nichols also held leadership positions with the Panther Boys’ Club, Easter Seal Society of Tarrant County, YMCA, North Texas Commission and Downtown Rotary Club of Fort Worth, among others.
In recognition of his commitment to community service, Freese and Nichols established the James R. Nichols Community Service Award, given annually to the employee who best exemplifies the dedication demonstrated by Nichols.
Honors and Accolades
Nichols received numerous professional, humanitarian and civic awards.
Both the TSPE and TSPE’s Fort Worth Chapter named him “Engineer of the Year” for 1983. The awards recognized his achievement in technical and professional work and community involvement. Nichols and his brother, Robert L. “Bob” Nichols, were jointly honored as Fellow members of the Texas Engineering Foundation at the TSPE annual conference in Dallas in 2013.
In 1982, Jim Nichols and the company were honored by the prestigious Newcomen Society for “substantial steps that have contributed to the progress of mankind.” The society noted, “As president of the firm of Freese and Nichols Inc., Mr. Nichols has played an important role in the growth and development of Texas and Fort Worth.”
Nichols was born June 29, 1923, to Marvin and Ethel Nichols. He was an alumnus of Fort Worth’s Paschal High School. He is survived by Billie, his wife of 71 years; three children, Judy, Richard and John; and six grandchildren. His brother, Bob, died in May 2015.