The third of seven children, Jim Nicholson was born in 1938 in a farmhouse outside Struble, Iowa. The farm had once belonged to his grandfather, a Scottish immigrant who lost everything during the Depression. Nicholson’s father quit school in the eighth grade to farm full time. Together with Nicholson’s mother, who was valedictorian of her senior class, they tried to make a living as farmers, but after two consecutive years of bad crops, the family had to leave the farm and move to the town of Le Mars. Nicholson was two at the time, and life in his family—which had never been easy—became even more difficult.
Nicholson’s father was an alcoholic, who could not keep a job, and the family was often evicted from rented dwellings. Eventually, the Nicholsons began living in tenant houses on farms. “These houses were shacks, really,” says Nicholson. “We never had indoor plumbing during my entire childhood, and we often had no electricity.”
Nicholson walked a mile to a one-room schoolhouse that offered eight grades. Often, he was humiliated by his family’s circumstances. “We were the poorest family in the school,” he says. “The other kids teased us. I remember being teased for wearing two different shoes because I didn’t have a pair that matched.” Rather than give in to despair, however, Nicholson’s mother was able to imbue her children with a competitive nature. “She used to tell us that we were just as smart as anybody else. She would say, ‘If you don’t let this get to you, and if you work hard, study hard, and pray hard, then in this country you will still have great opportunities.’ So that’s what we did. On the playing fields that were level—academics and sports—we did very well.”
When Nicholson was eight, he went to work for the Elmira Greeting Card Company. He walked from farm to farm, selling cards and stationery, and made $50 for every $100 of goods he sold. He opened a bank account and used his income to buy food for the family. “My older brother didn’t live with us until he was 15,” says Nicholson. “He was raised by an aunt. My mother needed my sister to help with the other children, so I was the one who had to earn money for the family.”
Living with an alcoholic father was difficult for everyone. “It’s a terrible disease,” says Nicholson. “You never knew who was going to come home. If my father came home sober, he could be charming and pleasant. But if he came home drunk, everyone suffered. I was often angry as a child because my father couldn’t take care of us. I vowed that I would never live that way or cause anyone else to live that way. I became very goal-oriented and determined. I didn’t understand alcoholism then, but I do now and have come to terms with what this disease did to us. I’m no longer bitter about it.”
Nicholson’s older brother, who had gone to Iowa State on a scholarship, received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After one year, however, the family could not afford a train ticket that would return him to West Point. Most of the local railroad tracks had washed out during a flood, and the Great Northern Railroad hired Nicholson, then 15, to help put it back together. He worked with a rough crowd of men who lived in bunk cars and labored on the tracks throughout the year. He earned enough money to buy his brother a train ticket to West Point, with enough left over to purchase a used car for his family. At the time, Nicholson’s father was institutionalized for his alcoholism, but his release marked the first time he could take a car to his odd jobs rather than riding a horse.
Nicholson worked every day, but he still found time to be active in school. He belonged to the National Honor Society, served on the student council, and was captain of the football team. His teachers and community members took an interest in him, and in 1957, he won an appointment to West Point. “Going to West Point directed the course of my adult life,” he says. “The West Point motto is ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ and I’ve been guided by that philosophy ever since.”
Upon graduation in 1961, Nicholson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He became an Army Ranger and paratrooper, served on active duty for eight years, and was eventually selected as one of two young officers to command a Davy Crockett platoon—a new tactical nuclear weapons unit. Later, as a French interpreter, Nicholson was ordered to France as an assistant attaché, but instead, he volunteered to go to Vietnam. “I was a highly trained West Point officer, and if there was a war going on, I wanted to be there,” he says. Upon his return to the United States, Nicholson earned a master’s degree in public policy and education from Columbia University. In 1970, he left the Army but remained active in the Reserves. He fully retired from the Army in 1991 with the rank of colonel.
Nicholson attended the University of Denver Law School full time, while also working full time for an engineering consulting firm. During the last half of law school, he was an administrative assistant in the Denver mayor’s office. Upon graduation, he joined a prestigious Denver law firm and, through hard work and determination, became a partner after just two years of practice. With a specialty in real estate and land use, Nicholson became general counsel to the Colorado Home Builders Association. In 1978, he left the law practice to pursue an opportunity to develop an upscale residential community halfway between Denver and Boulder. In 1982, Nicholson’s Ranch Country Club was named Colorado’s community of the year. Nicholson also served as a commissioner on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission during this period of his career.
While working in the Denver mayor’s office, Nicholson developed a love of politics. He started working for grassroots campaigns, and in 1986, was elected committeeman from Colorado for the Republican National Committee. In 1993, he became vice chairman of the RNC for the western states, rising three years later to become chairman of the RNC, a position he held for two terms. From 2001 to 2005, Nicholson served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and from 2005 to 2007 as secretary of veterans affairs.
Nicholson’s advice to young people echoes what he learned at West Point. “The sense of duty they instilled in me to serve others is indelible,” he says. “I implore young people to be public-spirited. Our country needs more involvement, and it is wonderfully satisfying for youth to serve others.”
Humbled by his Horatio Alger Award, Nicholson says, “This organization is dedicated to the principles that have made this country great: the free-enterprise system and the ability of an individual to make a difference because of the wonderful freedoms we have. I see this award as an opportunity to get even more involved and give something back.”