“He was a visionary who helped lead the college in a new direction,” said Andy Swiger, who was dean of the college after Nichols retired in 1991.
In 2014, the Virginia Tech Dairy Club presented him with a special award created specifically in his honor to recognize his significant accomplishments and contributions to the world of dairy science — the Virginia Dairy Pioneer Award. In 2010, he was inducted as a member of the Virginia Livestock Hall of Fame.
“Jim was an outstanding leader who helped our program grow into the nationally recognized program it is today,” said Mike Akers, the Horace E. and Elizabeth F. Alphin Professor of Dairy Science current head of the Department of Dairy Science.
Nichols was the head of the Department of Dairy Science from 1964 to 1969, associate dean from 1969 to 1971 and 1973 to 1975, and the dean of the college from 1975 to 1991.
Nichols was a trained geneticist, but those who knew him well said his greatest skill was his ability to recognize talent and build strong relationships with others, which helped him grow the college and expand its reach with industry, legislators, and stakeholders across the commonwealth.
During his tenure as dean, student enrollment in the college tripled.
“His strongest suit is that he was a good people person,” said Arthur “Ike” Eller, professor emeritus of animal science. “If you look at the Department of Dairy Science and the set of researchers he put together, they were an outstanding team who each had a national reputation.”
As dean, Nichols made a series of strategic decisions that continue to benefit the college and university today.
In the late 1980s, he oversaw the development of Kentland Farm, which now is an important research facility for a number of scientists and it is home to the gardens that grow some of the food for Virginia Tech dining halls. It will also be the location of a new, state-of-the-art dairy complex that will ensure the long-term success of the department that Nichols loved so much.
He brought Virginia Cooperative Extension back into the fold of the college and helped create the popular Agricultural Technology program. He also got researchers into biotechnology long before other universities.
Eller said Nichols’ easy demeanor helped build relationships with the dairy industry that benefited both the commonwealth and the university.
Nichols briefly left Virginia Tech to help start a new venture called the Select Sires A.I. Cooperative, a breeding program for beef and dairy cows. It is now North America’s largest bull semen provider.
Dick Saacke, a professor emeritus of dairy science, knew Nichols when the two worked at Penn State, which at the time had a much larger and more established program. A few years after Nichols was heading up the Virginia Tech program, he called Saacke and asked him to join the department. Saacke said the main reason he came to Blacksburg was because of Nichols.
“He had the vision for what the department should be and we had complete confidence in him,” Saacke said.
After his retirement in 1991, Nichols remained a big supporter of the university.
In 1991, friends and stakeholders across Virginia created the Dean James R. Nichols Scholarship to honor his contributions to agriculture and give more students the opportunity to attend the college and become part of the agricultural community. He was also active in the Blacksburg Sports Club, of which he was president for a time.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Jan. 24 at the Blacksburg United Methodist Church. Visitation will begin at 10 a.m. at the church. Private burial will follow in Jackson, Tennessee, beside his wife and parents.
Donations may be made to the James R. Nichols Scholarship Fund at Virginia Tech Development, 902 Prices Fork Road, Suite 4000, Blacksburg, VA 24061 or to the Blacksburg United Methodist Church, 111 Church Street S.E., Blacksburg, VA 24060.