Cuenca expat Lee Nichols devoted his life to accepting challenges and serving others
By Stephen Vargha
An American loved by many in Cuenca has passed away. Lee Nichols lived in Cuenca for just under three years, but he touched so many in the community.
Nichols felt that it is not what he has, or even what he does which expresses the worth of a man, but what he is. That is why in such a short time, Nichols enriched so many people’s lives.
Buddha once said, “If a man’s mind becomes pure, his surroundings will also become pure.” Maybe that is why the friends he made in Cuenca felt better about themselves after meeting him.
This special man learned early in his life that the power of sincerity and selfless contribution brings life’s deepest joy and true fulfillment. He practiced it immediately upon moving to Cuenca.
Music meant a great deal to Nichols, and the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra brought him great joy every week.
“Due to his assiduous assistance and unique charisma, we became friends and not only his presence and his light became important to me, but also his appreciation,” said Ana Dávila, who is in charge of publicity for the symphony. “He always had positive comments with a special charge of great appreciation and value.”
Nichols tried to show his appreciation for the symphony beyond his words and his presence nearly each week at the symphony’s performances. He spearheaded an effort with some expats to raise money for the symphony, but quickly found bureaucracy and being a government agency to be a hinderance.
But that did not stop him. Always having a positive attitude, Nichols helped in a way few have done.
“His magnificent, elegant, unrepeatable, unique presence, his brilliant, sweet, generous look and always a word, an expression, a smile, a pat, a handshake, and encouraging us,” said Dávila.
Life began with humble origins on August 11, 1940, at his family’s farm, 45 miles northeast of Charleston, West Virginia. He was the youngest of four sons of Poe Nichols and Stacel Webb Starcher.
His mother died as a result of childbirth, so Lee was raised by his mother’s aunt (whom he called, Grandmother).
“I was raised on a 200-acre farm without ever going to public school,” said Nichols. “I was tutored by a retired teacher until I enrolled at a high school in Parkersburg, West Virginia.”
After graduating high school in 1958, Nichols spent nearly four years at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, working as a cryptologist.
While in the Air Force, he met Grace von Tschirschky (now known as Niki). They were married on September 1, 1963, in San Antonio. They had two children, Anthony, and Christina.
Leaving the military spy world behind, Nichols ventured into the hospitality industry. He started with the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company, parent company of the fine dining Henrici’s restaurants. They sent him to Chicago because of his cooking skills, which he learned from his grandmother.
“Man, she was a great country cook. We raised our own beef and chickens. Everything was raised on the farm,” said Nichols. “My grandfather was a hunter, so we ate a lot of deer and wild turkey. It was an amazing life on the farm.”
His life adventure continued with at least 24 different addresses in just ten years. Three of those years were in Mexico City as the 1968 Summer Olympics was an impetus to being the manager of the American Club.
A “super oligarchic country club,” Tres Vidas en la Playa, and a former president of Mexico came into his life. In a village dominated by a stone fortress on a hill above a magnificent bay, the former president, Miguel Alemán, and his ultra-rich American friends had plans for Nichols to make their Mexican seaside getaway become a reality.
Plans called for an incredible amount of handcrafted work, mosaics, carvings, intricately laid patterns of stone and brick. Despite an army of 2,300 workers making furniture and wood fixtures, creating metal fixtures, laying cobblestone streets and walkways, etc., work had not been progressing as planned.
Because the work was bogged down, Alemán approached Nichols in Mexico City to rescue the massive seaside project near Acapulco. Nichols accepted the major challenge, especially after being told by the former president that the last person in charge had somehow disappeared into the Pacific Ocean (“We wouldn’t want you disappearing too, would we?”).
Upon completing his daunting task, the president of the company wrote to Nichols, “Your ability to organize that maze of problems, assign priorities and solutions to each one and then follow through with corrective action earned all the organization’s respect and admiration for a real professional.”
Two of Nichol’s adventurous years included extensive training in fine dining. “It is how I became a popular butler,” said Nichols. “I could do menu planning and wine tastings.”
For Nichols, it was a humbling experience. That was perfect for him as humbled people show greater generosity, helpfulness, and gratitude — all things that can only serve to draw us closer to others, according to the director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
The butler is not a servant but a helping hand in the household, often the sole permanent staff person. The primary duty of a butler is to oversee the household staff, many times at more than one residence.
Butlers represent the prestige of the residences, so Lee became the butler for Rankin Smith, the founding owner of the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons.
West Virginia U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller’s wife asked Lee to be the butler for their Washington, D.C. Rock Creek Park home, a 1920’s era mansion that sits atop 16-acres.
“Before deciding if I should make the move, I asked my friend about it,” said Nichols. “He told me that I cannot get much higher than the Rockefellers!”
After a few years, Nichols went to work for Mark Ye and Lisa Lai for their three homes in Georgia. “He started out as my butler but quickly became my mentor, a friend, and a hero,” said Lai. “Lee had so much wisdom and so many skills. He’s played so many roles in my life.”
Like Dávila, Nichols’ energy, enthusiasm and constant positive attitude were a great influence on Lai. “Lee had a young spirit that most do not see in most people his age,” said Lai. “I am so grateful to have been part of your life, Lee.”
Nichols officially retired in 2005, and moved to Andrews, North Carolina. He opened Cole House Restaurant with the “Phat Trout Wine Garden.” He made the restaurant famous with one very popular dish: Mountain Trout Almondine.
“There was all the fresh mountain trout I ever needed,” said Lee. His perfectly pan-fried fish served with a buttery sauce featuring toasted almonds and lemon is still remembered in western North Carolina with the building up for sale: “Own a piece of history with huge potential in downtown Andrews, NC! This converted cottage once served as a fine dining restaurant called, The Cole House.”
In 2011, Nichols was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He let the restaurant go and decided to travel the world. One of the reasons people love to travel is discovery. Lee wanted to learn about the world around him – and more about himself.
Six months after having surgery for his cancer, Nichols walked the entire length of Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route from the French border to the western coast of Spain. The Camino is quite difficult for a young person, let alone one in their seventies, because it’s a long walk and it is predominantly an uphill climb.
“Lee asked me to buy him a one-way ticket to Spain because he thought his time would be up,” said Lai. “I refused to do that, so I bought him a roundtrip ticket.”
The experience inspired him to write, “Talking With Cats: A Journey of Spirit, Healing and Wisdom on the Camino de Santiago.” A second 500-mile trek was made three years later.
After his second walking expedition, Nichols traveled the world to find a place he would call, “Home.” The worldwide tour took him through eastern Europe, Turkey, India, Southeast Asia, and parts of South America.
He retreated to the mountains between Taos, New Mexico, and the border of Colorado in 2017. Three years later, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, Lee and Niki moved south to Cuenca. It was the perfect place to enjoy life the way it should be, especially for his passion for food.
“Lee liked to eat Lamian Twice Cooked Pork,” said Zhou, who is co-owner of Lamian China restaurant.
It wasn’t just his enthusiasm for the great Chinese food. “I still remember that he once said to me: I sincerely hope you succeed! Those words came from the strength of the family, and we are grateful to him,” said Zhou.
Nichols made many new friends, who celebrated life with him in his final years. “We would go to other restaurants to eat together, go to a concert, and come to our house to celebrate our Chinese New Year and make dumplings together,” said Zhou. “I remember that day with Lee and Niki as she wore a beautiful red dress, which looked very traditional Chinese. Our Chinese New Year had added a new flavor.”
To Nichols, everyone else was more important than him. “I heard that Lee was sick, and I went to visit him at his home,” said Zhou. “I knew he must be in great pain, but he still pretended to be strong. He didn’t want us to suffer.”
“I miss his presence, his style, his words of encouragement, his enthusiasm, and his beautiful hands that seem to be carved from wax or from a very fine stone worthy of her bearing and elegance,” said Dávila.
“No number of words can describe my current mood,” said Zhou. “He is my friend and my family.”
“When I visited Lee at his bed, I asked him for his best advice,” said Lai. “He told me to live the best way I can. And then he closed his eyes.”
August 11, 1940 – April 17, 2023
Born: Otto, West Virginia
Died: Cuenca, Ecuador