How can a man who meant to retire 10 years ago, but is working seven days a week say he’s “living the dream?”
Walter Nichols, Horry County Schools’ Support Staff of the Year, loves his wife, loves his work, and says he never has a bad day.
Head custodian at Ten Oaks Middle School, Nichols got his work ethic from his father and his common sense from his mother, and the combination has made him a grateful, happy, and busy guy.
He and his wife Ellie raised two sons during their 43-year marriage, and moved to the area 10 years ago from New York.
Being part of the community has always been important to Nichols, which has a lot to do with why he’s working seven days a week.
In Vermont, where he was born “on the side of a mountain” and worked on a farm and in his grandfather’s lumber mill while in high school, Nichols was part of the community because that was home.
“In Vermont, people grew up and took over their father’s business and you knew everyone,” he says.
Then when the Nichols family settled down in New York, raising their children made them part of that community.
When they came South, they had neither of those community connections, so after a while, Nichols started selling tickets to sporting events at Carolina Forest High School, and met the parents of the athletes.
Interacting with people was important to him because he’d spent 32 years driving a tractor trailer. “Singing in that truck all by myself all that time…I loved it, but I wanted to be around people,” he says.
His goal when the couple moved to the area was “to work at a golf course, play some golf and be retired.”
But, the economy wasn’t good, and he didn’t get that job, so he started driving a school bus in April 2010.
That job was perfect for him and he loved it. At the same time, he started assisting the Carolina Forest High school custodial staff, and also helping out on the athletic field.
He thanks principal Gaye Driggers and then-athletics director Bo Rainbow for those opportunities, which eventually led to him accepting the job as head custodian at the high school.
When Ten Oaks Middle School opened and he was offered a job there, he was anxious to accept the challenge of working in a brand new facility.
“This is one of the first schools of its kind, and with all that glass, it looks like a busy shopping mall,” he says about his work surroundings.
The biggest challenge, he says, is having six custodians under him who need to work without supervision.
“It takes a special kind of person to do what he needs to do without anyone standing over him,” he says about his team. “That takes a special kind of leadership.”
Ten Oaks Principal Ben Prince says Nichols nailed it.
“He’s the model of professionalism and is excellent at his job,” he says. “He goes above and beyond for the school and does whatever we need whether it’s in his job description or not.”
Eventually, Nichols got that job at a golf course. On weekends in the winter and several times a week in the summer, he mows the grass at Myrtlewood Golf Club.
So, while he’s working every day, he says, “I’m just not the type to sit at home.”
And speaking of home, he has nothing but praise for his wife of more than four decades.
When a custodian calls in sick, she volunteers to help, spending her night cleaning the building.
And his eyes almost tear up when he brags about Ellie’s breakfasts.
“Even when I left for work at 6 o’clock in the morning, my breakfast was on the table. And I don’t mean a bowl of cereal,” he says. “Eggs, toast, home fries, that’s the kind of life we have.”
And when his children left for school at different times, they also had full breakfasts before they left the house.
Ellie ran a sports bar and grill for 25 years, and Nichols is obviously proud of her contributions to the family.
His pride in Ten Oaks is equally apparent.
“If something’s broken, I get it fixed before anyone notices it needs to be done,” he says. “I keep those concerns away from the principal and the teachers so they can do their jobs.”
Prince sends a weekly newsletter out about upcoming events and says Nichols looks at those events and plans accordingly.
“He figures out what needs to be set up or broken down, depending on what kind of meetings we’re having, and he handles it,” he says about Nichols. “I don’t even have to reach out to him about it.”
School-level and department support staff are nominated by their peers, rendered down to five finalists, and then a support staff of the year is named.
The five finalists also included Raephine Gaillard, Homewood Elementary; Angela Amaya, North Myrtle Beach Middle; Gloris Carr, St. James Middle and Suzanne Gore, Whitemore Park Middle.
At 63 with no plan to stop working, Nichols says, “I retired from driving a tractor trailer 10 years ago, and life has been pretty simple since then.”