Evelyn Nichols rides a hydrobike on a vacation trip to Key West, Florida, in January 2019. (Photo submitted by family)

Evelyn Nichols was laid to rest with public military honors — but those who knew her best admired her victories in private battles the most.

Born prematurely and weighing only 2 ½  pounds in 1940, when scant medical knowledge of neonatal intensive care was available, tiny Evelyn LaPierra Shipman somehow survived. Sadly, her mother did not. Evelyn was given her name to carry on.

Over the next 82 years, Evelyn fought through severe childhood measles that kept her in the hospital for two months, three types of cancer, congestive heart problems and multiple sclerosis.

“And none of that killed her,” notes daughter Aimee Newman.

“None of that even slowed her down,” says Aimee’s younger sister Keri Nichols. “She just kept doing whatever she could.”

Evelyn Nichols, 1940-2022 (Photo submitted by family)

Poverty was another life challenge. However, it led to Evelyn’s greatest joys — marriage and motherhood — as well as the reason that, following her death on Sept. 30, she was buried in Missouri Veterans Cemetery on the shore of Lake Springfield.

Evelyn served four years in the U.S. Navy in order to finance her college education. (Photo submitted by family)

Evelyn enlisted in the military because, having lost her father at age 10, she needed financial assistance to continue her education after graduating high school in southern California. Her dad had been in the Navy, so Evelyn picked that branch of service, with the aim of qualifying for the GI Bill.

“She had been working all sorts of jobs to try to put herself through college,” says Keri. “Picking pecans, being a camp counselor, working in a ketchup factory…”

“She never ate ketchup after that one!” adds Aimee.

In the Navy, Evelyn’s classification was hospital corpsman. She started out in the maternity ward, but gravitated to the psychiatric unit. There she met a psychologist — her first name was Aimee, which is how Evelyn’s firstborn got tagged — who encouraged and assisted Evelyn professionally. 

And, ultimately, personally, too.

The psychologist knew a guy she thought might make a good match with Evelyn. However, Richard Nichols was a Navy commander, and military rules forbid off-duty relationships between officers and enlisted personnel. However, as Evelyn was completing her enlistment, the psychologist nudged the two.

“She told our dad — he wasn’t our dad yet, of course — ‘Richard, you need to ask out Evelyn,’” recounts Aimee. “And she told Mom, ‘Evelyn, if Richard asks you out, you need to accept.’”

He did. She did. And they were married in the fall of 1969.

Returned to civilian life, Evelyn married Cmdr. Richard Nichols in 1969. (Photo submitted by family)
On the first “official” date with her future husband, Evelyn and Richard viewed the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., in 1968. (Photo submitted by family)

Family, and Springfield, beckoned

When Richard completed his 20-year Navy career, including serving as comptroller for the Fifth Naval District based in Norfolk, Virginia, the couple pondered where to put down civilian roots. Richard was from the Ozarks, having graduated from Aurora High School (1950) and from what is now Missouri State University with a business degree (1953). 

Family beckoned — and the couple told one of Richard’s aunts that if she could find them a house with a swimming pool in Springfield, they’d move here. It was a challenge mostly said in jest — but it led to Evelyn and Richard taking up residence in the Southern Hills house that the aunt found in 1973. 

Richard earned a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas and joined the then-SMS faculty, serving 23 years, including 13 as head of the accounting department.

Evelyn had earned a degree in medical technology from Old Dominion University while in Norfolk. “She always joked that she was the only student who took 176 credit hours to earn a bachelor’s degree, because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to do,” says Keri.

Became a teacher in Springfield

Settled in Springfield, Evelyn enrolled in a master’s degree program at SMS, this time majoring in remedial reading techniques. She then was a substitute teacher in the Springfield Public Schools system for a couple of years, taught kindergarten for a year at Greenwood Laboratory School, and taught reading at Pipkin and Reed junior high schools. 

However, in her mid-40s, Evelyn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the dreaded disease of the body’s central nervous system. It forced her to end her formal teaching career.

But it didn’t put an end to Evelyn’s teaching, nor to her activities with family and friends, as well as her volunteer work with her church and social agencies.

“Because she could no longer hold down a full-time job, she used volunteering as a way to feel purposeful,” says Keri.

Early on, Evelyn was involved in establishing the University Child Care Center to assist students with kids. It first was located at University Heights Baptist Church, then moved to South Street Christian Church. The center operated for almost a half-century, with Aimee recently following her mom’s footsteps on the board of directors, until the center closed two years ago.

Active in Multiple Sclerosis Society

Evelyn did a lot of work with the Springfield branch of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, especially with their aquatic program, and she and Richard helped with the annual MS 150 fund-raising bicycle ride for several years.

Evelyn also volunteered with the local Crosslines social services organization; Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Southwest Missouri; Mercy Hospital; and the Doula Foundation, which provides support to expectant and new mothers.

A special focus for Evelyn for more than 40 years was the children’s education department at South Street Christian Church. She was instrumental in establishing the Children’s Worship and Wonder and the Godly Play programs at the church.

On many weekdays, friend and fellow parishioner Cindy Summers assisted Evelyn with preparing for the kids’ Sunday morning activities: 

“Evelyn bought a special saw and set it up in her garage, and I would go over to her house and we would cut out manipulatives — wood figures to help the children visualize stories. We’d sand them and paint some of them. And I spent a lot of time in the computer room in her house as we made out schedules and curriculum for the children’s activities.”

Evelyn’s daughters say the woodworking was just one of their mother’s “craftsy” skills.

“She did a lot of sewing when we were younger,” recalls Aimee, who is benefits manager at Penmac employment agency here. “She made a lot of little matching outfits for my sister and me when we were kids.”

“She could do all sorts of home projects,” agrees Keri, who coaches Parkview High School’s girls’ basketball and golf teams. “She played a part in all the landscaping in front of the house, for instance.”

Fix it? Yes. Cook it? No.

“She remodeled the basement, built the benches down there,” Aimee continues. “If anything broke in the house, Mom usually was the one to fix it.”

One thing that Evelyn wasn’t particularly good at was cooking.

“Dad usually fed us breakfast and made our lunches to take to school,” says Aimee. “When we got a little older, each of us had a day or two a week when we had to cook dinner. Mom was not that good a cook.”

“But she owned it!” emphasizes Keri. “She totally owned the fact that she wasn’t a good cook.”

The daughters laugh when telling a favorite family story to illustrate that fact:

“Dad had this chocolate fudge recipe, and it was a tradition that he made it at Christmas. But one year Mom decided that she was going to make the fudge. And she made this peanut butter fudge that was so hard that we couldn’t get it out of the pan! We put the pan outside, thinking maybe the animals would eat the fudge — but they couldn’t get it out, either. It was bad! So she was forbidden to make fudge ever again.”

Evelyn could devour books, however. She routinely read at least two or three books each week.

“We’ve packed up more than 1,000 books as we’ve been cleaning out the house,” says Keri. “She was always reading, both fiction and non-fiction. At the end she was working on a book about the brain, one faith-based book…”

“And then a romance novel,” adds Aimee, “or a mystery.”

Diane Keeter says books were an important part of her close friendship with Evelyn in recent years. “We’d read books and discuss them. We had some very deep discussions. I learned a lot from Evelyn.”

At age 10, Evelyn took accordion lessons and also learned to play the clarinet. (Photo submitted by family)

Aimee and Keri say they are grateful for important life lessons their mother imparted to them through her demonstrations of fortitude and determination — and by encouraging the girls to grow into independent women.

“She was always big about ‘You make your own decisions, but you also live with whatever the consequences turn out to be,’” says Keri. “She did let us make our own decisions — and then wouldn’t bail us out when we made bad ones.”

The sisters also learned from summertime family trips while they were growing up. Destinations were throughout the U.S., including Hawaii.

And in the late 1980s, they were among the first exchange students with Springfield’s sister city of Isesaki, Japan — an expedition that Evelyn helped organize and for which she served as one of the chaperones.

Evelyn and Richard Nichols on a trip to Africa arranged in the early 2000s by Springfield’s Friends of the Zoo organization.. (Photo submitted by family)

Evelyn and Richard also traveled on their own to faraway places, including China, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Russia, Africa and Scandinavian countries.

“Evelyn said that whenever they traveled, she did not care to do the touristy things,” says Keeter. “She would rather find somebody local in the community that they were visiting, and strike up a conversation to learn about their daily lives, how they shopped, how they cooked, how they made their living. She was interested in people, and they opened up to her.

“She showed me the food from China and Japan and Thailand, and she tried to get me to eat with chopsticks — but that was a failed experience.”

‘She made me a better person’

Summers says Evelyn succeeded in “enlightening my life. She made me a better person. She had something about her that was so intriguing — the kind of person that you just wanted to be around. She could think up so many ideas and have so many interesting thoughts to share.”

Her daughters smile when they note that Evelyn had one thought about not sharing: Her burial plot.

“She was very, very set that she had to have her very own space,” explains Keri, referring to the policy of some cemeteries to allow couples to be buried in the same plot.

“We had to go out to Veterans Cemetery after my dad was buried (in 2014) to make sure that they had saved a space next to him for her. She was always like, “You make sure I get my own space — I earned it!”

And so, as her flag-draped casket was escorted by two uniformed Navy sailors, with a sharp rifle salute and the mournful bugle melody of “Taps” echoing among the sea of headstones, Evelyn’s final wish was granted on Oct. 6.  

Mike O'Brien

Mike O’Brien is a longtime newspaper reporter, editor and columnist and is also a college journalism educator in Springfield. To suggest a person who might make a subject for Lives Remembered, email him at LivesRemembered@sgfcitizen.org or obriencolumn@sbcglobal.net. More by Mike O’Brien