Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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Leonard J. Nickerson of West Cornwall - the connotation became a familiar one in Connecticut coin. He was born in that town October 23d, 1857, the son of Orson and Julia M. (Dibble) Nickerson. He died February 11th, 1937, in the same house in which he was born. His illness was brief. With undiminished activity to the end of his span, he was stricken down like an oak in the forest. It was as he would have wished. There was no sadness or farewell when he embarked.
In the farmhouse a-top the Cornish Hill where he always lived the vista gave his mind perspective.
He attended the Cornwall public schools and was graduated from the Alger Institute of that town. He studied law with the Hon. Arthur D. Warner and was admitted to the Litchfield bar in 1879. He was married to Alice P. New at Cornwall, September 16th, 1896. Their life together was ideally happy and they created the home which was unchanged from the time she died until his own death years afterward. She had brought up from Virginia a colored girl, and this girl became the Judge's housekeeper and devoted retainer. The home was continued exactly as Mrs. Nickerson left it. Not a picture was changed, not one piece of furniture moved from the place where Mary's "Missis" had put it. Mary was more than cook and housekeeper. She watched over and cared for the Judge and the creature comforts of his home. To hundreds of his friends she became a personality. Governors and judges sat at his groaning board and Mary passed the bountiful dishes she had prepared as the judge with napkin on his ample bosom carved the goose or joint. She entered into the table conversation with many a terse and happy comment and it was a revealing commentary on the human qualities of the man that in his home there was none of the awe and none of the ceremonial dignity that marked his life in his public interests and in the court room. To Mary the judge left by his will a substantial sum of money and thus attested a gratitude and regard that do honor to his memory.
In 1883 he represented Cornwall in the General Assembly and early became very active in town affairs. He soon had established an extensive practice that extended throughout the State. He was at one time president of the Litchfield County bar, chairman of the grievance committee, and public defender. While he held the latter post he always defended with vigor, as the state's attorney had reason to know. Once in that capacity he appeared for an accused charged with statutory burglary in breaking and entering his own law office, and he defended with superb detachment and won an acquittal for his client. He served as judge of probate for the district of Cornwall and was postmaster at West Cornwall for twenty-seven years. He was director of the Salisbury Bank and Trust Company; president of the Cornwall Masonic Hall Association; member of the board of managers of the Masonic Charity Foundation of Connecticut and a past grand master of the Grand Lodge of Connecticut. To him Masonry loomed large and was a great and vivid reality. He belonged to the Grange and to many clubs. He was essentially a sociable man in the best and most pleasant sense. He was convivial, yes, but only within the limits of punctilious property. A bottle of wine was to him a symbol of kindliness and beneficence. If he compounded a punch it seemed to smack of philanthropy and his imagination and sentiments entered into the cup that he joyously passed around.
He had a great capacity for friendship. One of the most touching evidences of this was his paternal-like devotion to John Addis, the son of his old friend and colleague. When he heard of John's first serious illness he sat in his room and tears coursed down his face. Within a few short months of his death John was called to answer the final summons. A great concourse of friends, many common to them both, gathered in a church for John as they had gathered in a church for Nick and the same pastor feelingly conducted services of impressive beauty. One was an old man, the other a young man, but there was a bond between them that knew not years nor circumstance but only affectionate loyalty.
After more years of activity, during which he again represented his town in the General Assembly and had become speaker of the House, he was nominated as judge of the Superior Court by Governor Templeton in 1923 and was appointed by the General Assembly. He was approaching the scriptural and the constitutional three-score and ten, but he could take his place upon the bench with unabated and undiminished vigor, mentally and physically. A wag said he had been called in the game just in time to win his "Y," but he won it, and he became an able, conscientious, just and humane judge. His place is secure on the honorable rolls of judicial service and in the hearts of countless friends.
It is not enough to record the facts of one's life if an obituary is intended to preserve the memory of a personality. Nothing delighted Judge Nickerson more than to recount the closed chapters of the Litchfield County bar and to recall the lawyers of yesterday who adorned their pages. To Judge Nickerson they were giants who somehow were invested with the rugged strength of the Litchfield hills. Through the haze of romance and glamour in which they appeared to him we can trace to its source the wellspring of his own being. He aspired to be one of them and he became one - as jocund and robust, and as great as any in the whole gallant galaxy of those who jousted in the court rooms and feasted in the inns of old Litchfield County.
The annual banquet of the Litchfield County bar has long since entered the tradition of things that are and should be. And at the head table for so many years that the lawyers of the present generation remember nothing different, Nick occupied an honored seat. Then, as part of the afterglow, always, he was called upon to speak. Majestically he rose and he reminisced of days gone by and there came from his soul deep and tender affection for those he had known, with high praise for their ability and zeal and their faithfulness to client and loyalty to court. And when he had finished it was like a benediction from a great and consecrated past; and every one present was somehow exalted; and proud and grateful that he too belonged in each company.
He never failed in what he said to stress high ideals; and many times a homely narrative served to point a moral or adorn a tale. At the last banquet he told as graphically as could a chapter of Lorna Doone of the time he went on a straw ride and was the teacher's escort. It was after twelve when the party ended and the ride, the dance and the dinner were but memories. The stars danced overhead in a still and moon brilliant sky. Leonard turned in, as a farmer's boy should who had early chores to do in the morning. Next day in school the teacher called on him for his algebra, and when he said, confidently too, that he hadn't had time to do it, she said, "Leonard, you might as well learn now, that no matter what happens, you must always have your algebra in the morning!" That lesson stuck, no one who knew him as lawyer or judge could ever doubt.
I shall never forget my last visit with him. It was the night before inauguration of the Governor in January, 1937. John Addis, Col. Clifford D. Perkins and I spent several hours with him in his room at the Heublein, and then with our wives dined with him far into the night. The next morning, up with the dawn, he came into the dining room under full sail and ordered double portions of everything. The table we first selected wouldn't even hold what he was going to eat, he said. When he dispatched me off to Rockville where I was to hold court (I must do my algebra, he said) he stood in the doorway waving farewell. "Life," he said, "is too short not to have many meetings with one's friends like last night's." And thus was his farewell to me.
He stood there, bareheaded, a majestic figure. In the modern day of shifting styles a man looks one way today and another way tomorrow. There are few types like Pickwick, who are always Pickwick. Judge Nickerson was one of the few. He was always Judge Nickerson. The square-topped Derby hat, the boiled shirt with diamond stud, the short-skirted cut-away, the gray striped trousers and ample boots - they had survived every passing caprice of fashion. He hadn't changed his style since 1877, he used to say. This prompted Philo Calhoun to ask him whether the date was April 20th, 1877, and Judge allowed that the date, being historic in emancipation, was probably right.
His nature was deeply devout and truly religious. Each Sunday he attended worship. He read the Bible and he knew it as a familiar friend. Shortly before he died he told his pastor of the joy and appreciation with which he read anew Deuteronomy. He lived a full, rich, happy life. He gave as much pleasure as he took. There was a salty savour in his mental processes and a fruity flavor in his abounding friendship that made him a Connecticut personality. Strong in mind and body, stalwart in principle, he lived a steadfast life, and abides with the shadowy giants whom he so loved to summon from the mists.