Fifteen years ago, long-time Farmington Hills resident Dr. Don Nichols rode more than 2,000 miles on his bicycle, from Windsor, Ontario to Key West, FL, to raise funds for an organization close to his heart.
On July 18, he's taking on another fundraising challenge, jogging 7.5 miles to help furnish and stock a library in Rwanda. Why 7.5 miles?
Nichols is jogging his age. That's right – he's 75 years old.
What drives this retired Oakland Community College (OCC) psychology professor is a passion for good health and for charity.
"I got it from my mother," Nichols said in a wide-ranging interview Thursday at Mentobe Cafe in downtown Farmington. "She said 'Your job is to make the world a better place, and to help people whenever you can.'."
His bicycle trip, which benefitted the March of Dimes, developed from a desire to repay an organization that helped him – literally – get back on his feet. Nichols was striken with polio at age 3, and until he was 11 years old, lived with braces, therapy and a paralyzed foot. March of Dimes paid for all of his treatment, including the surgery that relieved the paralysis.
In 1972, Nichols started jogging as a way to improve his health, and since that time has logged more than 35,000 miles. His work at OCC gave him a sense of giving back, in the lives he touched in the classroom.
About 10 years ago, Nichols met Emmanuel (Emmy) Baguma, a young Rwandan refugee who came to OCC to prepare for a career in nursing. Moved by the young man's story, Don and his wife, Alice, started paying for his books, room and board.
"This was a classic example of a miracle," Don Nichols said. "He had come as a refugee ... and now he and his wife are U.S. citizens, both registered nurses with Bachelor's degrees." He speaks with awe of their accomplishments, noting the two lost half of their family members in the Rwandan genocides of the mid-1990s.
Five years ago, Don Nichols and Baguma traveled to Rwanda, so Baguma could see his mother for the first time in seven years. While there, Nichols learned there were no public libraries in Rwanda, a country about the size and population of Michigan, he said.
He connected with a Rotary International effort to build a library in Kigali. The building is up, but now needs to be stocked with furniture, books, computers and other items. Nichols hopes his jog through the mountains of Tennessee, where he and his wife have a home, will inspire people to contribute to the cause.
He runs despite the fact that he suffers from post-polio syndrome, which causes severe pain in his feet whenever they get cold. As a result, the Nichols' divide their time among the states of Michigan, Tennessee and Florida.
The pain also forced Nichols to retire five years ago, but has not dampened his drive to help others. He volunteers his time as a counselor and preaches the gospel of good health wherever he goes, not only as a survivor of polio, but also of cancer – twice.
In an autobiography he's currently writing ("for my own benefit"), the chapter devoted to his childhood illness focuses on "the blessing of polio". The disease kept him indoors, where he read and became a good student. Building on that base, he earned a Ph.D. and enjoyed a career that now allows him to fulfill the mission his mother gave him so many years ago.
Rather than dwelling on the aches and pains, Nichols speaks often of how grateful he is. He points out that the per capita income in Rwanda is $1,200 a year, meaning every donation he collects on his 7.5-mile journey will have much greater value.
To potential donors, he says, "You are helping to build a library that will be there for 200 years, and will help young people for generations to come."
Tax-deductible donations in honor of Nichols' jog may be sent to American Friends of Kigali Library, 1051 Smithy Court, North Potomac, MD 20878.