Lee Nichols, a former Sacramento State communications professor who pursued an abiding curiosity about people and ideas as a newsman, political aide, KVIE executive and gay rights activist, died Dec. 14 in San Pablo. He was 85.
The cause of death was heart failure, his daughter Laurie Hensley said. After he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at age 70, he received a pacemaker and went on to live in San Francisco, Mendocino, Sacramento, France, Costa Rica, Berkeley and San Pablo, she said.
Mr. Nichols moved through life with a similar intellectual restlessness. His career included roles in broadcasting, public relations, politics and academia. He retired in 1988 after two decades as a popular communications studies professor who went out of his way to mentor students at California State University, Sacramento.
“He took a lot of time with students,” former CSUS professor Barbara O’Connor said. “He had legions of students who just worshiped him.”
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Mr. Nichols, who also was a radio talk-show host at KFBK, began teaching while working as a program consultant at public TV station KVIE Channel 6. He served as community relations manager and was appointed acting general manager for about nine months in 1969-70.
He settled in Sacramento as a press secretary and special assistant to Gov. Pat Brown in 1960 and worked as a consultant with state Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh. Mr. Nichols previously was a producer, commentator and West Coast editor for NBC News. He began working in public relations and was a radio commentator in Southern California.
Opinionated and outspoken, Mr. Nichols was a prolific writer and advocate for civil rights and social justice. He mentored students “who were looking for guidance about life as well as learning” and encouraged young people to be true to themselves and their dreams, his daughter said.
He followed his own advice in 1984 when he came out as a gay man to his wife, Liz, and their five adult children. He advocated for civil rights for gays and lesbians and wrote for local gay publications. In San Francisco, he raised money for the city library’s gay and lesbian collection.
“Lee mentored so many gay people,” O’Connor said. “A lot of people learned so much from him.”
Born in 1929 and raised in Hawthorne near Los Angeles, Leland Layne Nichols was drawn to theater as a boy and graduated from Hollywood Professional High School.
After graduating from UCLA in 1952, he served as an instructor in the Sixth Army, 53rd Field Artillery Battalion. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from UCLA in 1956.
He was active in professional, political and arts organizations. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Sacramento Public Relations Association in 1993 and won a Golden Mike Award for best documentary from the Southern California Radio-TV News Club.
Mr. Nichols was legally separated from his wife, who survives him. In addition to Hensley, he is survived by daughters Dana Sodergren, Meredith Charpantier and Hillary; a son, Matthew; and nine grandchildren.
A memorial gathering is set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Capital Public Radio, 7055 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.