County executive in 1980s has new career in Europe


He leaves for Albania today, and after visiting old friends, he will move on to war-torn Macedonia, where he is a consultant teaching practical civics. Then, it's Turkey for an international conference sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University, and finally Puerto Rico for more teaching.

It's a schedule that might fatigue a twenty-something, but at 70, former Howard County Executive J. Hugh Nichols can't wait to get started.

Despite years of work, and setbacks punctuated by armed ethnic conflicts in Eastern European nations struggling to modernize, Nichols has no thought of retirement.

"He's amazing. He's absolutely one of the best consultants we have," said Kathy Sheehy, a senior associate at Mendez England and Associates of Chevy Chase, the consulting firm for which Nichols does most of his contract work.

"He has a level of energy that rivals any I've seen. We're thrilled to have him," Sheehy says - a sentiment echoed by leaders of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

"He's held in very high esteem," said Sandee Newman, professor of policy studies and director of the institute. So high that last year, when the annual conference was held in Baltimore, Nichols was invited to be group leader of the discussion on industrial reuse - how to extend Baltimore's waterfront renaissance to other parts of the city.

This year's conference is in Istanbul and Mersin on the Mediterranean and will explore the balance between historic preservation and development, said Marsha Schachtel, a senior fellow.

Nichols has seen some historic sights in Macedonia, such as Pella, the ancient birthplace of Alexander the Great, where excavations are under way. He didn't have time to stop and enjoy the view, though, he said, because he was fleeing violence in Albania when he passed through.

Ever modest, the former Maryland state delegate, county executive, county councilman and assistant state budget secretary says he's in great shape. His only concession to age, he said, is that he gets medical checkups every six months now rather than once a year.

"The filament is still burning brightly," the folksy Alabama native said, referring to a comment he made at the tender age of 68 that "I'm going to work until I blow out like a light bulb."

Nichols is spending his time in Macedonia trying to teach people who have never known anything but a strongly centralized authoritarian government how to spread power, and public money, among local officials.

He's trying to show how a legal structure can work, how to form strong civic groups, similar to the Maryland Association of Counties - groups that can help local governments get more clout in the capital, Skopje. And he's trying to encourage more citizen participation in government.

As in Albania, he said, all that can be a tough sell for about the first six months, until officials begin to trust. That's where Nichols' political experience trumps his technical expertise. Macedonia is a primarily agricultural country with better roads and utilities than Albania has, he said, but with a discrimination problem involving the country's one-third ethnic Albanian minority that has left them with less government help.

"I've been up there - all the way to the border - right in the area where all the fighting is going on," Nichols said, explaining that he spent a Sunday last fall as a volunteer election observer in the northern area. "Albanian mayors and Slavic mayors get along pretty well," he said, but "discrimination [against the Albanian minority] is present, alive and rather intense."

The fighting along the border with Serbia is hurting efforts to build Macedonia's future, Nichols said, because of the destruction of entire villages and the creation of hundreds of homeless refugees.

"The situation in Macedonia is very disturbing at the moment. We're doing a lot of good with individuals, but the national government is still holding them with an iron fist - holding on to the power and the pocketbook," he said.

Still, Nichols knows it will take decades for the seeds of political change being planted now to grow and mature, given the centuries of ethnic conflict that has resulted in people living as close as Baltimore is to Richmond, Va., speaking up to three languages.

"You have to be patient. My first couple of years, I became very discouraged, but as time goes on you begin to see that people you helped are active in the community and they are part of that grass-roots base. They really like this free market system," he said.

While he works on the political problems, Nichols' team has also helped direct Western technical aid.

"We bought ground-penetrating radar to locate [water] pipelines lost for years," he said. The devices have "saved a fortune" by finding deteriorating water lines that lose half their precious cargo between reservoir and tap. Once the radar has found the lines and the leaks, repairs can be made.

Nichols is that rare politician who quit his political career, leaving the county executive's post five months before the end of his second term in 1986. He could not run for a third term and saw no viable route to higher public office, so he changed careers.

He left Maryland for a private utility industry job in Louisiana, which ended in a corporate takeover seven years later. That's when Hugh and Sue, his wife of more than 50 years, moved home to Maplesville, Ala., where they live now.

But in the post-Cold War world, the father of five, grandfather of 12 and great-grandfather of three discovered anew his yen for public service, and he found his blend of technical acumen and political experience in renewed demand.

He has lived overseas about 50 percent of the time over the past few years and is working to help Macedonia's 123 mayors learn to serve the former Yugoslavian province's population of about 2 million.

Living in Eastern Europe has become more routine over time, Nichols said. "I'm pretty much accustomed to it - accustomed to all the bacteria in all the waters of Central and Eastern Europe," he said.

What he is more anxious about is the continuing warfare between ethnic Albanian rebels and the central Macedonian government along the tiny country's northern border - a conflict that threatens to end his work, as violence did his efforts in Albania in 1998.

In addition to the destruction, he said, the violence keeps private investment out of the country, further retarding efforts to help the economy.

But he is not discouraged.

"I don't have an exit strategy," he said jokingly.

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