I thought we’d end this dreadful year, or begin the next one, with a breath of fresh air, and when I thought of a breath of fresh air, I thought Brenda Nichols. The thing is, some people just come in sets, and Brenda is one of them. Her partner for the past 39 years or so has been the sturdy, and multi-talented Richard Nichols, and the two of them are quite the combo. This is a second marriage for both of them, and from the looks of it, they struck it rich this time around. They have no kids of their own, but have sort of adopted the neighbor’s daughter, now a 10-year-old, and have loved watching her grow up.
When I first approached Brenda and Richard’s home on Cooper Road on the south side of Sebastopol, I found Richard puttering around in his art studio. He has been dabbling in painting/assemblage/collage for more than 40 years, but he has picked up the pace in the past four years. He showed me the old shack that was their home for eight years before we arrived at their current home, one that Richard built himself (he was a carpenter after all). Brenda, complete with that terribly sweet Irish brogue of hers, met us on the porch, and over a bottle of west county cabernet with fine legs and a hint of cinnamon and mossy undertones, away the conversation went.
Where and when were you born, and where is your family from?
Brenda- Dublin, Ireland, on Jan. 10, 1944. I was the 12th of 13 kids. I had shoes! My parents were from Ireland for as far back as you can go.
My father was a laborer in the shipyards and my mammy was busy raising the lot of us. We all slept in two bedrooms. (I took the following out of Brenda’s autobiography: “My eight brothers and Daddy slept in the back bedroom which was furnished with two double beds for the boys, and a single bed for Dadd. … The five girls and Mammy, slept in the front bedroom, furnished with two double beds where we slept heads and tails. A small fireplace took up a corner of the room next to the wardrobe where we huddled to keep warm on winter nights.”)
Richard- I was born in the same hospital as Dick Nixon was born, in Whittier, California, in 1942. My mom’s side was from Texas. Her father, who worked in the Texas oil fields, rode the rails out here after a failed marriage. He settled in Ventura County, mostly because of the oil fields there. My dad was from Missouri. I think they were English, but from way back.
After commenting about how compatible the two of them are, Brenda says, “We’re lucky to be together”, and then turns to Richard and says “and don’t forget how lucky you are!” (They both laugh.)
What have you done for work?
Brenda- My last real job was at SRJC where I worked in the Disabilities Resources Department. But I’ve done lots of volunteer work with Catholic Charities and their Alzheimer’s and dementia day respite center, and I’ve volunteered for our local food pantry over at St. Stephen’s for the past 12 years.
Richard- I was a carpenter, but so much else really.
It’s really the great out of doors and hiking that has been the biggest passion for the both of you.
Richard- We were two out of six people, among them the legendary Bill Kortum, who founded Coastwalk. It’s a Sebastopol based non-profit that promotes walking and conserving our amazing California coast. I was the executive director for the first 15 years, and Brenda was the volunteer treasurer for eight years.
Brenda- Related to all that walking, Richard more recently actually wrote the book, Sebastopol Walks. It was an extension of our travels. Whenever we travel someplace, we look for local information about the hiking and local trails. Sebastopol just didn’t have one of those guides, so Richard went and wrote one up.
You two were also instrumental in founding Sebastopol Tomorrow.
Brenda- When McDonald’s first wanted to set up here in Sebastopol, on the corner of Hurlbut and 116, there was a city council hearing about it. Richard got up and just spoke from his heart about the need for those of us here in Sebastopol, many of whom didn’t want to see McDonald’s here, to organize in order to address propositions like this.
Richard- A few people came up to me afterwards and said “Yes!, we’ve got to organize!” It was about 1984. So we formed an ad hoc committee, Sebastopol Tomorrow, to address these sort of planning and growth issues.
So in light of Taco Bell, Starbucks, Burger King and the CVS moving downtown, how are you feeling about Sebastopol today?
Brenda- I love this town, and can’t ever see living anyplace else. I think we’ve managed the corporate and economic pressures here in Sebastopol pretty well, because of all the grassroots activity and people coming together.
But isn’t there something a bit elitist about keeping fast and cheap food, out of our sweet (precious?) little town, if that’s what people want?
Brenda- The health issue is what’s more important to me. You can still eat cheaply and not eat fast foods. I grew up with 13 kids. We had to eat cheaply, but it was fresh food. Hey, I stood on soup lines. There’s nothing elitist about that.
Now that the COVID vaccine is being rolled out, when your turn comes, are the two of you going to get it?
Brenda- My arm is waiting and ready. Bring it on!
Richard- We’re after the essential workers and nursing home people, but we’re ready.
I suppose the COVID restrictions means more time at home, and some of that in front of the big screen. What are you guys watching these days?
Brenda- Lots of Netflix. "The Queen’s Gambit," "The Crown" and just now, "Bridgerton."
Richard- We just saw "The Last Dance," about the end of Michael Jordan’s reign. It was fabulous.
Okay, here’s the third last question. As avid hikers, what’s your all time favorite hike?
Brenda- Oh, that’s an easy one. We hiked to the Everest Base Camp when I was 70 and Richard was 72.
Richard- It took 19 days there and back. We were at 17,000 feet at base camp, and then I went a bit further to 18,000 feet.
Brenda- It was sheer magic. The hardest and most rewarding thing we ever did. It was amazing.
And I assume you remain active hikers.
Brenda- Sure. We walk every day, but take a real hike, you know, really hitting a trail for seven or ten miles, two to three times a week.
Well done! So, what are your New Years Eve plans?
Brenda- We’re going to Zoom with friends in New Mexico. Then probably go back to Netflix or pick up our books.
Well happy New Year to the both of you. And that goes for all of you readers out there.
We have much to be grateful for, and much to look forward to.
To get a copy of Richard’s book, Sebastopol Walks, step into Copperfield’s. They usually have them right at the check out counter.
Brenda also wrote a book, an autobiography about growing up in Dublin, called East Wall to California. There aren’t many copies in print, so ask to borrow a copy from her, and I promise she’ll be happy to lend you one.