LAURINBURG — Shortly after leaving the Marine Corps, in 1953 Charlie Nichols opened his first service station on Church Street.
In the decades that ensued, he developed a reputation as an entrepreneur with an unparalleled work ethic, a discreet supporter of local causes, and an up-to-the-minute authority on Scotland County’s goings-on.
Nichols, the founder of the Nic’s Pic Kwik chain of convenience stores in Scotland and surrounding counties, died on Sunday at the age of 85.
He was frequently spotted driving through town in a Lincoln Navigator, during election season keeping up with politics — which longtime friend J.D. Willis described as Nichols’ passion in life, second only to his family.
“He burned out two tanks of gas on Election Day and never left Scotland County,” Willis said.
In addition to standing behind his preferred candidates, Nichols also supported the democratic process by providing Nic’s chicken and pizza — spoken of in reverent tones by a loyal following — to the small army of workers required to run Scotland County’s polls on Election Day.
Willis, a member of the Laurinburg City Council and former county commissioner, first became acquainted with Nichols during his first bid for public office. Though the two didn’t always see issues in the same light, at the end of the day they remained fast friends and Willis respected Nichols’ fervent interest in the world around him — channeled through regular reconnaissance missions in the Navigator.
“He always wanted to keep the pulse of the community and know what was happening,” said Willis.
“He would just be checking on everything; he could about tell you what building was being built, something was being moved, something wasn’t right. He’d just ride around and be noticing stuff so he could come back and tell you how it should be done.”
Nichols was a founding member of the Laurinburg Optimist Club. There, he developed a 60-year friendship with Bill Riggins.
“It was one of those relationships where he was local and he was in business and we were local and we were in business,” said Riggins. “The family tradition is kind of going on with his family as well as ours.”
Riggins described Nichols as a fellow workaholic and honest to a fault, placing customer satisfaction as the top of his business’ priorities.
“He strived to make you happy with what he did,” said Riggins. “His customers are happy to be where they are with him. He was a first-class merchant. He’s not money-hungry and he supported this community in every endeavor they could come up with.”
Nichols’ interest in horses led him to St. Andrews University, then St. Andrews Presbyterian College, which he helped to establish a riding program for the disabled and to build its first barn.
St. Andrews president and alumnus Paul Baldasare noted that Nichols’ devotion to school was matched only by the unpretentious nature of his support.
“He never sought the limelight, but rather worked behind the scenes to support causes that he cared deeply about,” said Baldasare. “As a man of faith, he believed strongly in the importance of education and in helping those who were disabled, disadvantaged and without resources achieve a college degree. He’ll be missed in so many ways throughout the Scotland County community.”
Those who knew Nichols attribute his success as a business owner to his work ethic, inherited from his parents and passed on, along with the Nic’s stores, to his sons.
In one story from his youth, Nichols described his mother’s reaction when he returned home after quitting his factory job in a fit of pique. His state of unemployment was short-lived after she informed him it would be in his best interest to have a job by the time his father got home.
Riggins envied Nichols’ knack for choosing locations, which never resulted in an unsuccessful store, and lamented the decline of the type of local family-operated business piloted by them both.
“I know his boys will pick up where he left off, because it’s evident in the way they relate to the community and every cause there is,” Riggins said. “He was a typical family business operator. You don’t operate a family business for you as much as your family, to leave a legacy to them.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.