PITTSBURG — To fulfill his father’s dying wishes, Colorado resident John Elwood Nichols III, searched for his long-lost grandmother’s grave.
Saturday marked the very end of his 33-year journey of bringing his father John Elwood Nichols Jr., to rest at his mother grave.
At the beginning Nichols didn’t know his grandmother’s name was Tillie Grace McCool and because of divorces, other family changes and moving, finding her grave wasn’t easy.
His father died of suicide on May 19, 1985, and he left behind notes, the last one dated April 22,1985, in which he stated he wanted to be cremated and his wife — Theresa — knew what he wanted done with him. Theresa is John Elwood Jr.’s third wife, not Nichols’ mother Everald Grace Allen, who was his first wife. Theresa explained that Nichols’ father wanted his ashes spread over his mother’s grave.
However, Nichols said, it wasn’t until after her death until he had the ashes. They were stored away and had not made it to the final resting place his father wished for.
“When she died and one of her sons called and asked if I wanted the ashes, I said yes,” Nichols said. “At the time I didn’t even have his mother’s name to work with … I became concerned that no one was going to complete the task of his final wish. In fact, I was sick enough to state to my wife this is the only thing I have on my bucket list and once I complete it I can kick the bucket or start a new list.”
From then he spent time, on and off, searching for clues. Nichols then came down with an illness which left him unable to work — and which enabled him to dedicate more time to the search.
A call from his cousin, Kevin Parker, from Olney, Illinois in attempt to help with clues to the puzzle sent him final documents.
“I got him to send me what he had and in it was a gold mine of info and pictures that I had never seen before,” Nichols said. “For the first time I saw a picture of my grandmother with her bridesmaids and the best men of the wedding.”
Nichols did not have much information from his father of Tillie’s whereabouts, because he had left the family when Nichols was very young and it was not until later Nichols worked with his father who was in Camperville, Colorado. However, his grandmother wasn’t part of discussion during his time with his father.
The journey led to more than simply where his grandmother was, Nichols said.
Nichols’ father was born on May 29, 1919 in Haileyville, Oklahoma, and was the second of two children. His brother is Albert Leo Nichols. The brothers were born to Johnnie Elwood Nichols Sr. of Krebs, Oklahoma, and Tillie Grace Johnson of Crawford County.
He also found out about his great grandparents, Albert Elwood Nichols and Marie Katherine Milton — Albert Elwood Nichols was born to William Perry Nichols and Lucinda Barnes.
Albert Wood Nichols, ended up marrying and working in the mines in Oklahoma and was at one time mayor of Haileyville and was also a state mine inspector. He died in 1921.
From a document he found, he discovered his grandparents were married September 1, 1914, and more than 100 people attended their wedding..
His grandparents were divorced in 1921 and his father went with his mother, Tillie, who moved back to Kansas. His uncle, Albert Leo Nichols, stayed with his father in Haileyville.
Nichols also found out that his father lived from 1921 to 1923 with his mother, who had died at the age of 27 from peritonitis. Before her death, she married again to Charles Benton McCool who was a railroad ticket agent and is buried in Highland Park Cemetery in Pittsburg, Kansas.
Nichols said he is left to assume his father was taken back in custody by his father.
His father married his high school sweetheart, Everald Grace Allen and lived in Newton, Illinois. His father served in the army for two-and-a-half years during World War II and his brother served almost one year earlier. Nichols said he found out his uncle was captured and spent over 1,000 days in the Osaki Main Prison Camp in Japan. His father and family moved to Colorado after a tragic car accident which killed his friend injured a state patrolman.
Most of the information he found started in Haileyville — where he lived in a trailer — where he stayed for two months on Lake Eufala.
“There I found lots of info and visited lots of graves and met lots of nice people including Jim Kurilko who spent many days and hours driving me to places to help me find info on my search,” Nichols said.
He also spent time with his brother in Austin, Texas where his brother has been living for many years.
“In those four months I spent more time with my brother that I would never trade and more than I had spent with im in the past 66 years,” Nichols said.
In Haileyville, he found his grandparents' divorce records, and his great grandfather’s masonic info and even a wife of a cousin who still happens to be alive in Arizona.
He was able to speak to her and was able to learn more about his family.
“Her husband had been on one of the lower decks during Pearl Harbor and survived and spent 30 years in the Navy,” Nichols said.
He also found clues in a Haileyville newspaper.
“In an article in a Haileyville newspaper it stated that in 1921, on the same page as my great grandfather’s obituary that my grandmother Tillie Nichols was visiting at the home of Lee Nichols, my grandfather’s brother and neighbor and also the family of Denver McCall,” Nichols said. “That one clue led to the divorce papers and after feeling like I had exhausted all the leads I looked on ‘Find a Grave’ and found David Henry McCall’s grave in Booneville, Arkansas.
“When I clicked on it the info came up and stated that his first wife was Rosa Minnie Johnson which is Tillie’s older sister.”
This relationship, Nichols said, explained how Tillie ended up in Haileyville.
“Rosa was married in 1903 in Haileyville and died in a buggy accident in 1916,” Nichols said. “When the buggy was taking her from a prayer meeting to an ice cream store the horse ran off while she was getting off.”
During the same internet search, it also listed Edith Myrel McCaw, Rosa and David McCall’s daughter and she was buried at Highland Park Cemetery in Pittsburg, Kansas.
“After going to that website I found lots of Johnson’s but no Tillie and then as a last attempt I put in only the name ‘Tillie’ into the search engine for the cemetery and found Tillie G. McCool born 1897 and died 1923,” Nichols said. “It was a clue, but no proof of anything.”
There were three Tillies in the cemetery but only McCool matched the approximate birth year.
He then asked for clues from the community of Pittsburg and surrounding area by having an article run by The Morning Sun in February. From there, he received two responses.
One was from Jerry Lomshek.
“He took time out of his day to get the actual obituary from PSU,” Nichols said.
The other person was Ella Buzzard, who works in the Genealogy Department.
“They were so helpful and spent many hours assisting me since I’ve been here,” Nichols said.
Nichols said the obituary Lomshek found proved it was his grandmother.
“On the 20th of April, my birthday, I left for Kansas, and what I have been searching for half my life was here and I was able to come to Pittsburg, Kansas, and visit her grave and make some final preparations,” Nichols said.
Saturday was the 33 year anniversary of John Elwood Nichols Jr.’s death and Nichols, accompanied by his wife Patricia and Pastor Patrick Nixon of the First Christian Church had a brief service at Tillie G. McCool’s gravesite at Highland Park Cemetery.
The church also happens to be the same church which married his grandmother to Charles McCool in April 20, 1922.
“I never knew my father very well because when he left I was young, but this 33-year search has drawn me closer than ever expected,” Nichols said. “Now the grief that I should have felt 33 years ago overwhelms me today.”
— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.