Volunteer With 'Deep Knowledge' Of Chatham History Remembered
CHATHAM – The two things you could always count on from Ben Nickerson were a smile and a kind word.
“Ben always left you with a smile on your face,” said Jean Williams, who runs the FISH medical transportation service, for which Mr. Nickerson volunteered. “He was a people person, with all the best qualities, upbeat and had fun stories to tell and never a negative word about anybody else.”
An 11thgeneration descendant of Chatham founder William Nickerson, Mr. Nickerson passed away last Thursday, Jan. 24. He was 84 years old.
Benjamin T. Nickerson was remembered for his deep knowledge of Chatham history and people, his service as a volunteer firefighter, town official and Mason and his devotion to the Nickerson Family Association. Many in town knew him through the business he and his wife Marilyn started in 1970, Benjamin T. Nickerson Inc., a rubbish removal service now operated by his son Benjamin and daughter Pamela. He could often be seen driving the company's big green truck smiling and waving to people along his route.
Ralph Crowell met Mr. Nickerson in 1949 when he moved to town after getting married to a local woman. Both served on the town's fire department and were past masters at St. Martin's Masonic Lodge.
“He always looked on the positive side,” Crowell said of Mr. Nickerson. “He made the best of every situation that came along. He was very positive, that's what made everybody like him.”
Mr. Nickerson's father, Benjamin L. Nickerson, was on the town's police department, and Mr. Nickerson grew up in Chathamport steeped in the local traditions and stories of his ancestors. “He was a Cape Cod Nickerson, without a doubt,” said Crowell, also a Nickerson descendant.
Mr. Nickerson served in the Coast Guard, meeting his wife, Marilyn Strutzel, while stationed in Alaska. After living for three years in Aurora, Minn, his wife's hometown, the couple returned to Chatham where Mr. Nickerson followed in his father's footsteps, serving as a police officer and firefighter. He also continued to serve as a Coast Guard reservist, and played a role in what was perhaps Chatham's most famous incident in the 1950s, the rescue of the 32 crew members from stern section of the tanker the SS Pendleton.
On Feb. 18, 1952, he was attending Chatham's annual town meeting at the Chatham Theater – now the Chatham Orpheum – when Moderator Igo Toabe made an announcement about the rescue and asked that emergency personnel and anyone with a station wagon head to the fish pier to help transport the frigid and shaken crew. Mr. Nickerson left the meeting and borrowed his neighbor's 1947 Ford Woody, drove to the pier and took Pendleton survivors to the Coast Guard Station.
“Everybody was cold and all bundled up and there wasn't much conversation going on,” he recalled in a 2016 interview. He said he always looked up to Coxswain Bernie Webber, who piloted the CG36500 against overwhelming odds to rescue the Pendleton crew.
“He was like a star to me to even attempt that,” Mr. Nickerson said.
For 28 years Mr. Nickerson was a volunteer for the Nickerson Family Association, in recent years volunteering on genealogical projects every Wednesday morning. He was a mainstay of the annual Nickerson Family Reunion, and was relied upon for his long memory of Chatham's people and history, said Nickerson Family Association Executive Director Debra Lawless.
“What impressed me the most was how if I asked him a casual question about someone in Chatham, he'd give me the person's life story. And it was all accurate,” said Lawless.
He had incredible institutional knowledge about the family and the town, said Ron Nickerson, a past president of the NFA. “It's a real loss to the organization,” he said. “We don't have anybody to ask anymore.”
Mr. Nickerson was instrumental in the Nickerson Family Association's effort to save the 1829 Caleb Nickerson house in 1997, serving as head of the project's finance committee. He helped oversee the relocation of the antique Cape via barge from Nickerson Neck to Ryder's Cove. It was moved just down Route 28 to the Association's property where it now serves as a museum. At the time the location was thought to be near William Nickerson's original homestead; recent archaeological digs confirmed the existence of a house from that era, probably William Nickerson's, on land just behind the Nickerson Family Association property.
“He was a fantastic family member and volunteered doing anything they required, with a big smile on his face,” said Phyllis Nickerson Power, who worked with Mr. Nickerson on NFA projects. For the Association's float in the Fourth of July parade in 2012, Chatham's 300thanniversary, Mr. Nickerson donned a period costume and took on the role of his famous ancestor, William Nickerson, with Power playing the role of William's wife Anne Busby. It was a hot day and she'd brought along a water pistol, soaking people in the crowd even though it was against parade rules.
“He laughed!” Power recalled. “He just had the best grin and the best laugh. He will be so sorely missed, just because he was a ray of sunshine all the time.”
Mr. Nickerson was a popular driver for the FISH transportation service, which provides free rides to medical appointments. Many clients requested him as driver, and he had to be put on limited duty because he was wearing himself out by driving so much, Williams said.
“He felt it gave him the opportunity to meet people he otherwise wouldn't meet,” she said of his work with the organization. “He was absolutely one of the best [drivers] we ever had. He cared about other people.”
Mr. Nickerson grew up in Chathamport and attended school – all 12 years – in the former Main Street School, now the town's community center. He built a home in West Chatham in 1960 where the couple raised their four children, Linda, Pamela, Kim and Benjamin. He worked as a mechanic, bus driver and for his brother-in-law's trash hauling business before starting the rubbish removal company, according to the Nickerson Disposal website. He retired in 2009.
Along with serving as a police officer and volunteer firefighter, Mr. Nickerson was an elected constable and served on the recreation commission for nine years. He was a long-time member of the First Congregational Church of Chatham, and spent many hours volunteering with the Masons.
“He was a great, great guy,” said Crowell. “He was an asset to the town of Chatham, without any question about it.”
At Mr. Nickerson's request, there will be no service. The family plans a celebration of his life in the spring.