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Long-serving member of Richburg council dies at 80

Ailing from complications related to a respiratory illness, Barnette Nichols told his family, "I realize I'm not getting any better. I've done everything I can do. I'm ready to go."

On Tuesday, Nichols died at age 80, leaving behind a Chester County community he served for decades with a compassion, sense of justice and zeal that those closest to him said will be hard to live without.

"He just always was helping people," his daughter Debbie McMinn said. "He was very busy all the time. This was like breathing to him. He would just get up every morning and do it."

In the 47 years that Nichols sat on Richburg's Town Council, he became known as a tireless and outspoken advocate for the community of 275 residents 16 miles south of Rock Hill.

And he wasn't afraid of ruffling feathers.

"You always knew where you stood with him," McMinn said.

In the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to remove contaminated water from an abandoned toxic waste storage facility between Richburg and Fort Lawn by pumping it through the local sewer system.

Nichols strongly opposed it. He formed a group of more than 300 residents to fight the proposal. They succeeded, and the EPA even cited their efforts as a model for how communities could work with the federal organization to clean up Superfund sites.

A 1996 EPA newsletter quotes Nichols as saying: "I would like to see EPA appoint a committee from the community to work with them. ... I'd like the community to be involved; then we wouldn't have to be wondering what EPA was doing."

More recently, he and colleagues on the town's five-member council challenged Chester County leaders over plans to build a waste-to-energy incinerator nearby.

"We're right here in the heart of Chester County," Nichols said in late 2009. "It would've been the proper thing to come to our government first. It had never surfaced until about 30 days ago, and they've been working on it for 14 months.

"We have a right to know. They have a duty to tell us."

Nichols' life outside of politics was no less exciting.

He spent free time flying planes, taking road trips on his Honda Gold Wing motorcycle and tending to his flowers.

He was partial to his field of sunflowers, which children visited on school field trips when they bloomed.

Nichols was an auxiliary police officer, a Chester water commissioner and a volunteer firefighter. He got the town its first fire truck and became the town's fire chief.

In 1998, the state firefighters' association named him Firefighter of the Year.

When a water main at the Chester County Hospital broke the previous winter, Nichols used fire truck hoses to force water into the hospital's pipelines. He directed firefighters from four departments for 18 hours as they pumped 65,000 gallons of water to the hospital, keeping it open until the pipes were fixed.

Weeks earlier, a man driving a stolen tractor-trailer led police on a high-speed chase down Interstate 77 before crashing off Exit 65, the Richburg exit.

The thief survived, and a 14-hour standoff ensued.

Authorities considered shooting the suspect with a sniper rifle, said Tommy McMinn, Nichols' son-in-law and a volunteer firefighter at the time.

Nichols suggested spraying water with a fire hose into the truck instead. The pressure blew out the truck's windows and water filled the cab in 35-degree weather. Police fired tear gas, which forced the man out.

"That was a challenge because he was in there with a gun," Nichols said at the time.

"We didn't want to have a scene on national television."

Just something he did

Nichols, whom friends called "Barney," was born in Rock Hill.

After serving with the Army in Germany during the Korean War, he returned to work at the Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co., also known as the Bleachery. He started in 1955, making 89 cents an hour.

By the end of his 47-year career there, he had been a carpenter, a chemical mixer and a maintenance supervisor.

He also was active in preserving the Bleachery's historical qualities and eventually oversaw the building's demolition.

Nichols was first elected to Richburg's Town Council in 1964.

In an early, high-profile achievement, he and colleagues successfully lobbied the state to run the newly planned I-77 through Richburg.

What people likely will remember Nichols for most was his sense of humor and desire to help others, said Cathy Mobley, a longtime friend.

"He just had that kind of sense of humor," she said. "You had to be there to see it because you wouldn't believe what came out of his mouth."

"He was kind of like Archie Bunker in some respects," Debbie McMinn said.

When new faces arrived in town, Nichols was eager to greet and introduce them to his wife, Jean, who specializes in genealogy.

"He would say, 'I can tell you about who's living, and my wife can tell you about who's dead,'" Mobley said.

"People he met in Richburg and Rock Hill, if they needed something and he could help, he would," said Tommy McMinn, now Richburg's planning director.

McMinn, who specializes in electrical work, would get calls from Nichols, who would say, "Come with me; this person needs some lights fixed."

McMinn would do the work while Nichols chatted with the person. They would never accept money for the work, Tommy McMinn said.

"It was just something he did to help people out."