Oberlin College Archives


PAPERS, 1908-(1934-1959)-1974


John Herbert Nichols, physical educator, athletic administrator, camp owner and director, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, January 13, 1890. His father, the Rev. John Richard Nichols (1854-1932) was an Oberlin graduate (A.B. 1879, B.D. 1883, honorary D.D. 1922) and a trustee of Marietta College. His mother Nellie Hawley (1855-1927) also attended Oberlin College (1875-80) and took classes in the Conservatory of Music (1875-77).

Nichols spent most of his early years in Marietta, Ohio where he developed his love of sports and the out-of-doors. He was so adept at sports that he played for the Marietta College basketball and football teams while still a high school student in the Marietta Academy. At Oberlin College he continued his interest in sports, earning nine athletic letters and serving as captain of the baseball and basketball teams. Twice he was named to the all-Ohio football and basketball teams. After graduating in 1911, he remained at Oberlin for a year with a faculty appointment to coach and teach physical education classes along with his classmate Glen "Crip" Gray (1887-1921).

Nichols received his M.D. degree from Rush Medical College at the University of Chicago in 1916. While there he became acquainted with head football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg (1862-1965, honorary A.M. Oberlin 1923) and helped to officiate scrimmages for Stagg. At Stagg's urging Nichols became an official in the Big Ten. For the next 23 years he was one of the Midwest's outstanding referees in football, officiating more than 250 Big Ten games. He also refereed basketball games for 15 years. In 1924, he was an official at the dedication of the Illinois Memorial Stadium when Red Grange scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes. He wrote a series of articles on football officiating which were syndicated by Scripps-Howard in the late 1920s.

Following graduation from medical school in 1916, Dr. Nichols became medical examiner and head of the physical education division at Ohio State University under Lynn W. St. John, director of athletics. Interrupted only by service as a medical corpsman for a year and a half during World War I, Dr. Nichols' tenure at Ohio State was a fruitful one. He succeeded in changing physical education from mass calisthenics to an elective program. Under his direction Ohio State began granting academic credit for physical education and a physical education major was established. Nichols was also a leader in efforts to make physical education compulsory in Ohio public schools, after noting an alarming incidence of defects from a lack of exercise in medical examinations he conducted on matriculating freshman. A bill mandating physical education in public schools was adopted into law in 1923.

In 1928, at the urging of athletic director C.W. Savage (1869-1957) and Whitelaw Morrison (1886-1959), director of physical education, Nichols returned to Oberlin College. He broadened the intramural sports program at the College and developed a student managerial system, an awards system, and an annual Intramural Festival. When C.W. Savage retired in 1935, Nichols succeeded him as athletic director. Commercialism was kept in check by his insistence that athletics be financed out of the regular college budget, by carefully controlling recruiting and denying athletic scholarships. He was also a leader in the Ohio Athletic Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and contributed more than 100 articles to professional and lay journals. In 1955 he retired from Oberlin College after serving as the first combined director of athletics and chairman of the physical education department.

Dr. Nichols was also associated with Camp Pemigewassett in Wentworth, New Hampshire. His affiliation began in 1910 when he became a camp counselor. The camp was established in 1908 by three Oberlin graduates, all recipients of the M.D. degree from Columbia; Edwin Fauver (A.B. 1899, 1875-1949), Edgar Fauver (A.B. 1899, 1875-1946), and Dudley B. Reed (A.B. 1903, 1878-1955). Nichols joined them as a part owner in 1920, and the group became known as "the Four Docs." The Four Docs were assisted by their spouses, all Oberlin graduates, who unofficially helped out at camp. [Nichols' first wife, Louise Allen (A.B. 1911, b.1888) died in 1955. In 1958 he married Catherine Fifield Burtt (A.B. 1914, 1892-1989)].

Camp Pemigewassett emphasized sports, nature study, shop, art and music. From 1908 to 1957 its enrollment grew from 15 boys to 160 and its staff in later years numbered in the 60s. It was considered to be one of the best camps of its kind in the nation. Many Oberlin graduates were campers or counselors at Camp Pemigewassett. Among the former counselors are Erwin Griswold (A.B. 1925), Robert Kretchmar (A.B. 1940), Bob Burnham (A.B. 1952), Norman C. Craig (A.B. 1953), and Fred D. Shults (A.B. 1954).

In 1970 Camp Pemigewassett honored Dr. Nichols for his 60 year membership on the camp staff. Oberlin College honored him by naming the gateway to the athletic fields "Nichols Gateway" in 1955. Dr. Nichols died in Oberlin in 1979.


Tong, Curtis W., "Physical Education's Unsung Hero," Oberlin Alumni Magazine, May/June 1975 Nichols Obituary, Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 6, 1979 Nichols Obituary, Oberlin News Tribune, November 8, 1979 Staff and Alumni Files, Record Group 28, Oberlin College Archives

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