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Brian Nicholson ’85

February 23, 2022, in Missoula, Montana, from pancreatic cancer.


Brian was born in Fort Meade, Maryland, in 1963, and lived abroad for eight of his first 11 years in Lagos, Nigeria; Bogota, Colombia; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He returned to the U.S. with his parents and three siblings and graduated from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1981. Brian majored in economics at Reed, where his thesis, “Interregional Disparity in Brazil,” was advised by Prof. George Hay [economics 1956–83].

Brian lived with his sweetheart, Anne Mattocks, during his last two years at Reed. They married in Rockville, Maryland, in the summer of 1985. Not long after, they served as Peace Corps volunteers in Tunisia, where they learned Arabic and taught beekeeping to rural farmers. After the Peace Corps, Brian and Anne settled in Rockville, where they lovingly reared three children who have become wonderful adults. Brian made a living in Maryland with his own house-painting business. In recent years, his work increasingly included construction and remodeling projects—he knew how to build a house from the ground up. Brian earned a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University, but decided that he enjoyed the freedom of owning his own business too much to pursue teaching.

I met him during the first meeting of our Hum 110 course and later that day in the sports center, and we instantly became very close friends. That never changed. There was just something about Brian. Our mutual friend, Steve Halpern ’85, fondly reminisced, “Brian lived across the hall from me as dorm mates, so I met him from day one. He seemed more focused, thoughtful, and aware of the things that mattered than most of us.” I share Steve’s perspective. Brian and I spent the fall break of our freshman year backpacking in the Cascades, which involved grueling hikes and flagging down a Greyhound bus on a mountain highway.

His remarkable social skills can be attributed to his parents and his early years in West Africa and South America. Brian was comfortable with all sorts of people, regardless of ethnicity, age, wealth, or education. He made people happy. When he entered a room, a party ensued. And he made people think. Throughout his life, Brian read widely in politics, economics, and history. He was always ready for debate, and he knew how to disabuse friendly rivals of their ill-conceived positions.

Brian loved hiking and backpacking in the Rocky Mountains. Most summers he traveled west to Placid Lake, Montana, to share good times and a love for the outdoors with family and friends at his family’s cabin. His work kept him lean and fit. In recent years, we enjoyed several backpacking trips into wilderness areas in Wyoming and Montana, and Brian seemed as strong and agile as the day we met. He also enjoyed relaxing on beaches of the East Coast, the Caribbean, and Hawaii.

Brian had to cancel our backpacking trip in the summer of 2020 after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I visited him four times after that for a total of six weeks, and I will always cherish those times. He remained hopeful and fought hard with incredible dignity and grace. After a surgery in the spring of 2021 that was deemed successful, Brian decided to permanently relocate to Missoula, Montana. He had been thinking about this for years, especially because his parents were there, and all of his children and grandchildren moved there in recent years. Shortly after his arrival in Missoula, the cancer returned and rapidly metastasized. However, Brian retained his sense of humor and love of life. We managed two last car camping trips and shared more laughter and political debate.

Brian died in his parents’ home while comforted by family. He was one of a kind and lived a good life on his own terms. He is survived by his wife, Anne; his mother, Colleen Nicholson; his children, Aubry, Aaron, and Nick; and his siblings, Sean, Bruce, and Shelley.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2023

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