Sports, baseball in particular, were always incredibly important to Frank Nickerson.
But nothing, not even the Boston Red Sox, came above family.
Nickerson put his heart and soul into coaching the Kamiak baseball team, which included his son Dominic Nickerson. Frank coached at Kamiak in each of the past three decades, serving as head coach of the Knights for the past two seasons despite battling colorectal cancer with treatments before many practices.
On Thursday, July 7, Nickerson passed away at his home in Lake Stevens. He was 56.
“For me it was always about the family time,” said Mary Whitley, Frank’s younger sister. “It wasn’t even just baseball. He was a gamer. He would love to compete. We would have family game nights on a regular basis. It didn’t matter the game. He had fun, but he wanted to play.
“I think that’s what drove him for so long to keep fighting. He didn’t want to stop playing.”
That drive led Frank to continue to coach and teach despite symptoms and side effects from the treatment of his cancer. Not being on the baseball diamond just wasn’t an option for Nickerson.
“During baseball season, baseball was our life,” said Tess Nickerson, Frank’s wife of 19 years. “On the field and off the field. We just knew baseball season was going to be more hectic than the holidays were. When baseball season came on it was game on, 24/7. That was the Nickerson season.”
In order to give the Kamiak baseball team his all, Frank and Tess had a discussion with Frank’s doctor about putting off treatments until after the season so that Frank could spend as much time as possible coaching the Knights.
“Frank was doing treatment every week during the school year,” Tess said. “… When baseball season came he asked his oncologist if he could skip treatment. Frank didn’t miss a single game. Or single practice. So his cancer grew during that time. But to Frank, it was more important to have the boys and the team.”
Tess said Frank Nickerson, who was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts and was an avid Boston sports fan, always had a love for baseball.
“Frank has been in love with baseball since he was a child,” she said. “In Massachusetts, where he grew up he went to parochial school and one of the field trips was to go to baseball games with the nuns. And they’d all get a scorecard and that was part of the assignment.”
Nickerson is survived by his wife Tess; sons Dominic and Michael; parents, Leighton and Anita Nickerson of Chandler, Arizona; sister, Beth Schureman (Dave) of Bremerton; brother, Steve Nickerson (Melanie) of Mukilteo; sister, Mary Whitley (Steve) of Renton; sister-in-law, Donna (Ricky) of Bothell; four nephews and three nieces; aunt, Gloria Jean Merriam (David) of Holyoke, Massachusetts; and cousins Jason, David and Adam Merriam of Massachusetts.
A celebration of Frank Nickerson’s life will take place at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Rosehill Community Center in Mukilteo. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Lake Stevens. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Frank’s honor to the American Cancer Society.
After graduating from Western Washington University, Nickerson taught in the Mukilteo School District for over 30 years. Teaching was a great fit for Frank, said his younger sister.
“I think it just came naturally to him,” said Whitley. “He’s the oldest of four and he was always put in a position of having to mentor his younger siblings and take care of us. I’m the baby. He taught me how to drive. How to swim. He was that third parent. Both of our parents worked full time. It all kind of fell on him.”
Whitley, whose husband Steve recalled that Frank’s first questions when they started dating were about his sports allegiances, remembered when Frank told her he got his first coaching job at Mariner High School.
“I can still remember he was so excited and so nervous,” Whitley said. “My sister and I came to watch and sit in the stands and listen to what people were saying.”
He was the head coach for Mariner before Kamiak High School was built, and was lured over to the Knights by then-Kamiak head coach Steve Merkley to run the Knights’ junior varsity team.
“He loved baseball and you could tell in his eyes when he talked about it and his actions,” Merkley said. “He was a perfectionist though. If you didn’t do it perfect in his eyes you heard about it.”
Merkley had planned to retire in 2013, but Frank convinced him to coach one more year so that his son, Dominic, could play for Merkley for one season.
Then, Frank took over when Merkley did retire after the 2014 season.
“That’s how we planned it,” Merkley said. “I was actually going to retire the year before but Dominic was going to be a sophomore and he said, ‘Can’t you just coach my kid one year?’ You never know how things are going to go, but I knew (Kamiak should make Nickerson the head coach). If they didn’t hire him then they were completely nuts.”
Nickerson took over prior to the 2015 season, where he coached Kamiak — and Dominic — for the next two seasons.
“He was a little bit harder on me on the field but it was understandable,” said Dominic, an outfielder and pitcher for the Knights. “He didn’t want to show that he was playing favorites. But I appreciated it. It showed how much he cared about how I did.”
The Knights immediately took to their new head coach.
“I always thought, growing up, I would finish out my baseball career with (Merkley) as my head coach,” said Connor Alexander, a senior pitcher on this year’s Kamiak squad. “Once Nickerson came in, it turned that around. It was an awesome two years of baseball and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
On the diamond, Frank Nickerson was known for being a little intense, but always positive.
“One of his quotes that I always remember and still use is, ‘Earn, not given,’” Alexander said. “For our team, over the two years that he was the head coach every practice he’d bring it up at least once. Even in life, not just baseball, everything is earned, not given. That’s something I try to live by.”
“I think they took him as their motivation to do well,” Dominic said. “He didn’t have to come out everyday, because he was pretty sick, but he chose to come out and be with us and I think it inspired us to go out and do our best for him. He wanted to win. But he cared about us as players more than he did winning. He would have loved to get a few more ‘W’s’ under his belt but the development of us as baseball players and men was more important to him than a couple hits.”
In just two years as a head coach in Wesco, Nickerson also made an impression on his fellow baseball coaches – who admired his strength both on the field and off.
“I think the word that comes to mind for me would be ‘loyal,’” said Cascade head coach Scott Stencil, whose Bruins played against Nickerson in the regular-season finale on May 3 in what turned out to be Nickerson’s final game. “Loyal to the Kamiak baseball program for so many years, to the school itself as a teacher. I know he was loved by his players as well as his students at Kamiak.
“We played them on senior night the last two seasons at Kamiak and you could tell how much the players liked and respected him. Also, two years ago our senior night home game was rained out and moved to Kamiak and they let us do our senior night combined with theirs which was great.”
Longtime Lake Stevens head coach Rodger Anderson, who retired from the Vikings after 32 years when this past season was completed, recalled his last conversation with Nickerson during a game a few months ago.
“He just seemed like a really nice guy,” Anderson said. “We were talking a little before our last game. Then I found out he lives in Lake Stevens. I wish his kid had gone to Lake Stevens! He’s a great player!
“He always seemed to be pretty positive. It was hard watching him because you knew he was in a lot of pain but he wanted to be there for his players and his kid. I really admired that. To still show up every day on the baseball field shows a lot of love for his players and a lot of character. He wasn’t going to quit while his kid was still playing.”
Merkley said that Dominic Nickerson was a big motivator for Frank.
“He hid it really well,” Merkley said. “He’s been really sick for the last three years. He wanted to make it through Dominic’s senior season and his graduation and he did both. He met his goals there.”
“It was definitely something I appreciate,” Dominic Nickerson said. “I know he had stopped coaching to take a break because he was sick. He came back to coach for me and my high school experience which I really appreciate. … He wanted to coach me one last time and I appreciated that and what he did for me.”
Dominic and Alexander are just two of the numerous kids that Frank made an impression on in his time at Kamiak. And it wasn’t just on the baseball field.
Merkley’s son, Brock, had Frank for English and informed his father that Frank was his favorite teacher. His other son Reece, who played for Frank on the Kamiak JV team, told his father – the Kamiak varsity coach – that “Nickerson was his favorite coach.”
“He was a head coach before I was a head coach,” Merkley said. “He was a good baseball mind. He was a fun guy. That’s why he was such a good teacher. He made everything fun.”