Martha A. Nichols, a former Goucher College dean of students recalled for her firm and wise counsel, died Dec. 20 at the Brandon Woods Retirement Community in Lawrence, Kan. The former Towson resident was 102.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, and raised in Branford, Conn., she was the daughter of Alfred Arnold, a silk executive who sold parachute cord, and his wife, Phyllis Arnold, a homemaker.
Interested in becoming a physician, she initially applied to the Johns Hopkins University and was accepted as a pre-med student. When she arrived in Baltimore, she was turned down because the school did not accept women.
“It was a clerical error. She may have applied under the name M.A. Arnold,” said her son, Stephen A. Nichols of Ijamsville. “And at the time, it was a fight too big for her to fight. Hopkins referred her to Goucher.”
A 1976 Sun article said she continued with pre-med, but did not like organic chemistry and became an English major. After graduating in 1938, she taught at Roland Park Country School for two years and earned a master’s degree at Syracuse University. She then began her career at Goucher as its dean of students. She retired in 1976 after 34 years in the post.
“She was such a human person,” said Tracie Palmer Emslie of Fort Collins, Colo. “As a young student, I was way beyond my depths, timid and shy. But when I went to see her, she kept it real. She helped you without letting you know. She had incredible insight into people — she made you feel as if you didn’t need help.”
She also said, “She was a dear, canny, gracious lady.”
Lucretia “Bo” Gibbs Townsend, a 1970 graduate who lives in Charleston, S.C., said, “She had longevity at Goucher and was able to change as the students changed.
“She was understanding and wise. I really valued her advice. I felt as if she was a step ahead of me. In the turmoil of the 1960s, she remained a calm, friendly influence. We had our disagreements, but we could always talk about them,” said Ms. Townsend.
Jacqueline Greenberg, a 1973 Goucher graduate who lives in Miami, Fla., recalled the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s at the school.
“Mrs. Nichols was a strong woman when feminism was starting to coalesce,” said Ms. Greenberg. “She was someone to emulate. She told us we could do anything if you apply yourself. She let us know our gender was not a barrier to our success. She was kind and gracious and was an empathetic character.”
“Great Martha, as she is affectionately known in her family, was a Renaissance woman,” said her son. “As Dean Nichols she served as an inspiration, role model and trusted counselor for many women, including her Goucher students and her grandchildren.”
“She received offers to become a college president,” said her son. “She said it was nice to be asked, and said that being a president would involve fundraising. She said, “I prefer the role as dean of students.’ ”
When she retired, she told a Sun reporter that 1940s students “felt a strong sense of noblesse oblige. They felt their education was a privilege and were hunting for a way to serve society and also get security. … In the Fifties, it was a different set of problems. The cliches used to describe students — apathy, indifference — were not wholly inaccurate.”
She went on to describe the 1960s: “There was hostility, anger and disenchantment; the students were in real conflict.”
Marilyn Warshawsky, a Goucher trustee emerita, said, “She had responsibilities as dean of students. She started with the school when its campus was on Saint Paul Street and had to move it to Towson. She shepherded all those students in that move and had to build spirit and a sense of camaraderie as well.”
Ms. Warshawsky also said, “She was warm and kind but also had high expectations. She embodied the best of what I think a Goucher graduate should be.”
She was a past board secretary of the National Association of Women Deans & Counselors and a past board member of the Regional Salvation Army, a trustee of the Park School and a member of the vestry at Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson.
In addition to her son, survivors include another son, Jonathan S. Nichols of Valencia, Calif.; five grandchildren: and three great-grandchildren. Her husband of more than 60 years, Everett “Nick” Nichols, a Black and Decker accountant, died in 2004.