Thursday, December 23, 2004
A conversation with Jim Nichols
A lot has changed since 1963. That was the year that what is now the Blacksburg Sports Club was founded.
Jim Nichols used to be president of the club in his spare time when he wasn't busy being the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, and he talks a lot about just exactly how much the climate of Virginia Tech and of Blacksburg has changed since then.
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In fact, he wrote a book about it. "Rising Expectations" is a historical study of Blacksburg and its high school and university and as its title suggests of the idea that good things take time, as the saying goes. The author recently took some time to talk about the nature and history of his new book.
How did you decide to write this book?
Jim Nichols: "At the same time of the 40th anniversary, the 40th year of the Blacksburg Sports Club ... I was thinking 'well somebody needs to write a history of the sports club,' and they thought 'well that's a good idea, so who's gonna do it?' ... and finally I agreed to write it. I had no idea what it would involve because we didn't have decent minutes or decent records. I went back and talked to hundreds of people ... and I knew a lot of them ... so from that we started embarking on the book."
What was the original idea for the book?
JN: "How are you gonna write an interesting book about a club? That's not very sexy, that's not very interesting to people ... the only way I really could do that was to put it in the context of the time. ... Primarily what I'm trying to say is this is the way it was at Tech back then, and this is the way it is now, and we have aspirations to even make it better and to get better at sports and better at academics and a better town and a better place to live. But the main thing is, what caused it to change? ... And that's really what the book is about, through talking about things that happened with the Sports Club."
What are some of the changes that have occurred?
JN: "Athletic programs weren't very good, the university wasn't very big. And that's the reason I entitled the book 'Rising Expectations' - people's expectations for the university and the town. The whole process of getting into the ACC and playing for the national championship in football. ... The university's always been a good school, a good university, and we've got great high schools over here, too. Probably a lot of people don't know that - academically and athletically, too. ... When I came down here, there wasn't anything down here. Really, there wasn't anything down here in 1963. I mean, I'm not putting it down, but there wasn't a decent restaurant and there wasn't a decent motel or hotel or anything. But anyway I fell in love with it."
What's your take on things in general?
JN: "I'm positive on athletics, positive on sports, positive on intercollegiate sports and competitive sports and so forth, but at the same time I'm naive about what's going on in sports and right now I could care less about professional basketball and ... some of the things like that, just because of the character of the players and the nonsense, and they're focusing on money and focusing on careers. Just like the World Series this year - it was a great World Series, but now they're going every which way, and there's no loyalty at all ... so the book is more about those other things than it is about the Blacksburg Sports Club per se - that's just sort of the setting for it, and the stories come out of that."
Whom did you talk to?
JN: "I interviewed a lot of people here at the university, and talked to a lot of people ... most of them at the Sports Club. Talked to a lot of other people about what they thought and attitudes and so forth. Then we interviewed a lot of the kids that were selected as outstanding athletes [as part of the Sports Club's 40th Anniversary events] ... about their experience here at Tech and their experience at the [Blacksburg] high school and what they thought was good and bad and so forth."
Who's the publisher?
JN: "It's a small publishing firm out of Staunton called Lot's Wife."
Did you approach them specifically?
JN: "Well, fortunately that came about this way. The Virginia State Dairyman's Association and the Virginia Cattleman's Association ... they've been here for a long, long time, and I've been on their boards and so forth and I know a lot of the people, and we were talking about this: Let's put together a history of the cattle industry in Virginia from Jamestown on up to now ["Virginia's Cattle Story: The First Four Centuries," by Katherine Brown and Nancy Sorrells] ... So in the process of doing that I met Dr. Brown and I met Nancy [Sorrells] ... and I thought they were pretty efficient publishers ... So I began talking to them about this book ['Rising Expectations'] and I felt comfortable with them."
What was it like writing the book?
JN: "'The dag'gum book,' that's what I called it for a long time. It just saturated me ... I didn't have a secretary, I was trying to do it on the computer and I'm not a very good computer guy, so I ended up doing the whole thing longhand ... I didn't have any full-time help, it was just me ... I did all the interviews myself ... so finally I just pushed the panic button and my ... head secretary [Martha Fitzwater], who had been an administrative assistant for me over here at the college for a long, long time, and she was really, really good, so when I left, she left ... and I called her one day and said I got to have some help. ... So she sort of took over - she really did - she was the liaison to the publishers ... she saved my life, she really did."
"Rising Expectations" will be available through the Blacksburg Sports Club, Tech Bookstore and other locations after Jan. 1.