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November-December 2014

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In Memoriam: Monte Carl Nichols (1938–2014)

Monte Carl Nichols—mineralogist, crystallographer, chemist, potter, gardener, yo-yo champion, and all around good and funny guy—passed away on 4 June 2014 after a long battle with a rare form of cancer.

Many are probably thinking that they recognize the name but are uncertain exactly why. I'll give you the answer at the beginning: he was coauthor with Ernest H. Nickel of the Mineral Reference Manual (1991) and with John W. Anthony, Richard A. Bideaux, and Kenneth W. Bladh of the excellent and monumental five-volume Handbook of Mineralogy (1990, 1995, 1997, 2000, and 2003). The Handbook should be in every mineral collector's library such is the scope of its contents.

Monte was born in Iowa, but his parents migrated to Arizona when Monte was a third-grader. Growing up in Arizona, he was a frequent visitor to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the University of Arizona Mineral Museum; he was also a member of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society, where he came across a kindred soul named Richard Bideaux. Monte's father was tolerant enough to drive Monte and some of his neighborhood friends (the boys had saved their money to buy 200 feet of rope) out to the area mines for collecting.

After his high school graduation, he attended Yale University on a scholarship for a year and a half. Smart but frugal, Monte transferred back to the University of Arizona when his scholarship was exhausted. (I'm having visions of a “nerdy” crew roaming the campus, following behind the great John Anthony, a mineralogy professor there at the time.) After receiving his BS in chemistry, he was off to the Harvard “yard” along with his friend Richard Bideaux (who was best man at Monte's first marriage). There he received his MS degree in physical chemistry.

After graduation Monte worked for Dow Chemical in Connecticut and by this time had married and had two children. After a divorce, he transferred to a job at the famous Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. Monte met Barbara in Livermore, and they were married in 1969 and would have two children. An opportunity was given Monte to work for Sandia National Laboratories (one of those government research houses that pulses with the “brainiest”) in Livermore as a chemist and materials scientist, and he continued there until his retirement in 1996. While at Sandia, Monte was awarded three R&D 100 Awards for his advances in X-ray imaging instrumentation, and he received a special award for Excellence in Technology Transfer (sometimes referred to as transfer of technology, which basically involved knowledge transfer of technologies from applied research centers to research and development departments).

Awards aside, it was his work on the Handbook of Mineralogy of which he was especially proud. When the group formed to undertake this work, they were certainly bridging the computer revolution, and many of the first descriptions were handwritten on a standardized template. Desktop and personal computers as we know them today were simply not available. Between 1980 and 1990 Monte was the leader in finding a computing platform that would be suitable for the Handbook. Not unexpectedly, when a small room is filled with a small group of super talented and smart guys, “differences” often popped up—some of them quite spirited—and it was the soft-spoken John Anthony who usually tamed the tempers. One such flare-up was over the crystal drawings that would appear on the cover of each volume. Everyone agreed that a traditional line drawing would be appealing, but how to orient it was another matter. In the end, I think all of them were well selected and oriented just right.

Monte was never bored in his retirement. He was always keeping up with the latest technology associated with his past work, and his work on the Handbook continued for several years after his retirement. He loved to garden at his home in Livermore, and at one time he became obsessed with South African bulbs—hundreds of them! I can only imagine how beautiful it must have been during the blooming season. He also dabbled in pottery, and I have seen photos of some of his work, which is quite lovely. I think Monte may have been the number one customer at the local library, for he was an avid reader and was always surrounded by piles of mystery novels (perhaps his version of an escape from the scientific world?). I love the fact that his late mother had saved all of Monte's library cards during his childhood.

One thing I did discover that I laughed about and knew that Monte would have something funny to say about: he won the Duncan yo-yo championship at age eleven! No one I asked remembers seeing Monte with a yo-yo in his hands in later years, but I imagine that he never lost that skill and somewhere in his house there is a yo-yo! Barbara and Monte took long walks around their neighborhood where they were so well liked, and occasionally they drifted off to Hawaii for a bit of pleasure; in general they enjoyed a calm and relaxed life together.

The news of his incurable illness was a jolt, but Monte approached this setback with his usual biting sense of humor, and he made everyone more comfortable with the situation. We have all heard of the request for the “last meal”—what would it be? Having been on a diet of easy-to-eat soft foods for so long, Monte just had this craving for a nice big piece of Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken. Barbara indulged him this craving on the evening of 3 June. Monte retired that night a happy man and did not wake up.

Monte is survived by his wife of forty-five years, Barbara, as well as four children and twelve grandchildren scattered around the country. His family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors came together some weeks after Monte died for a celebration of his life, and it was a joyous occasion—just the way he would have wanted it to be.

I was not in Monte's company much after Richard Bideaux's death, but we did keep in touch, and I always enjoyed his humor, his knowledge, and his unassuming ways.

Keep them laughing in that laboratory in the sky, Monte.

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