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Former Howard County Executive finds joy helping others overseas Nichols lands work abroad with business, people skills


Ever heard of a 20-year veteran politician grateful for being forced from public life, and happy for the chance to work in Albania?

Meet J. Hugh Nichols, 68, former Howard County executive, county councilman, state delegate and assistant state budget secretary.

"He comes across like a good ol' boy -- a country boy, but he's very intelligent," County Executive James N. Robey said.

"He's a whiz with numbers -- a real quick study," said Raquel Sanudo, Howard's chief administrative officer, who worked in Nichols' administration.

Despite his age and harrowing experiences overseas, Nichols isn't thinking of slowing.

"I'm going to work until I blow out like a light bulb," the folksy, low-key Alabama native vowed recently.

He spent most of the past several years working in Albania -- the tiny, often chaotic former communist country on the Adriatic Sea north of Greece.

A contract employee for the Washington-area government contractor Mendez England and Associates, he and other Americans in Albania were forced out in August after U.S. missile strikes against Osama bin Laden, the elusive Saudi millionaire and suspected terrorist, resulted in threats of retaliation around the world.

Schooled for years in the backdoor political intrigues of a dictatorship, Albanian officials are hesitant to trust anyone, let alone strangers, Nichols said. It takes weeks of frequent contacts before the first tentative steps can be taken.

'What am I doing here?'

Also, life in Albania isn't exactly like that in Howard County's Columbia.

Albanian utilities are sporadic at best, sewage often enters leaky water lines, and the roads are so bad that automobiles can't go faster than 25 mph without risking serious damage, he said.

"For about the first month you say [to yourself]: 'What am I doing here?' " Nichols said.

He had to leave the country one other time during his nearly 25-month stint -- when a national pyramid scheme collapsed in 1997, throwing the Maryland-sized nation of about 4 million, with a median income of $800 a year -- into economic and political chaos.

Nichols had a scare at the height of that turmoil when a British reporter who had borrowed his hired driver as an interpreter made the mistake of getting into a shoving match with armed government guards who wouldn't allow her into the parliament building.

After being chased back to their car, where rifle butts were used to smash all the windows, the two women escaped to Nichols' home, where the battered vehicle was sheltered behind the locked gates of his courtyard, he said.

Under surveillance, he managed to slip away for a few days with others from his team until tempers cooled. "I knew my Albanian people were in danger," he said of those with whom he worked.

Not giving up

Despite these grim experiences, and the worry of taking constant precautions against a growing crime problem, Nichols isn't discouraged.

"I guess after you're there for a while and see how hard some of the people are trying, you can't desert them," he said. "They wanted help. That's a very gratifying feeling."

His busy, sometimes adventurous life after politics began in July 1986.

Unable to run for a third term as Howard County executive, and blocked from gubernatorial ambitions by William Donald Schaefer's well-financed campaign, Nichols left his $47,500-a-year public office five months early for a private utility company job in Louisiana.

"I believe in term limits, but I would have run for another term," Nichols said. "It probably wouldn't have been good for me or the county. Schaefer did me a good favor when he raised all that money and scared me out of the governor's race."

Nichols had converted from Democrat to Republican to prepare for a possible try for the governor's seat.

After his seven-year career in the utility business was cut short by a corporate move that eliminated his job, Nichols and his wife, Sue, retired to their home in Maplesville, Ala. -- "22 miles from the nearest grocery store."

But, ever restless, he volunteered for eight weeks in Poland four years ago to help create a free-market economic plan there, an experience that built his interest in using his energy and knowledge to help Eastern European countries build open economies and democratic political institutions.

"I felt like I needed to do public service again," he said, adding that he was surprised to find government contractors willing to pay for his services.

Thomas C. England, president of the firm that contracted to work in Albania for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Nichols is one of the most energetic and imaginative people he has met, and doubly valuable also for knowing the art of governing.

Nichols has helped several Albanians come to the United States to study, and he arranged for several to spend a day in Howard County last summer to learn how a local government operates.

Wants to do more

Though he must endure long separations from his wife, grown children and grandchildren, Nichols is eager to do more overseas. He and his wife are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this month and recently completed an extended trip through Southeast Asia, he said.

But he hungers for more challenges.

"If somebody called me this morning and said, 'We need you in Albania tomorrow,' I'd be there," Nichols said.

The peripatetic retiree returned to Ellicott City from Maplesville for Robey's inauguration Dec. 7.

"I just got an invitation in the mail," Nichols said. "I thought that was very nice."

The county and its people have changed, he said.

Seated among the more than 1,000 people in Howard High School's auditorium, he found familiar faces, but he said most of the people were strangers.

Cruising around newer developments in Ellicott City and Columbia also was sobering, he said.

"I drove along Route 100 and the interchanges just to see what was there," Nichols said. "I spent a fair amount of time just to keep from getting lost. The county has grown a little faster than I anticipated."

He walked unrecognized through one of the county's office buildings, but that didn't sadden him.

"You've got to expect that," he said. "Life moves on."

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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