As I watched the coverage of Tim Russert’s memorial service, I thought back to 11 years ago, almost to the day, when another man died.
Dan Nicholaou died of a heart attack on June 12, 1997. He was 45 years old. The similarities are uncanny. Russert died on June 13. Father’s Day was on Sunday, June 15, just as it was 11 years ago. Russert was praised as a family man. Danny was also a family man. When he died, he was doing something you could always find him doing — getting ready to spend time with his family. He was getting the camper ready in his driveway, preparing for a Father’s Day weekend with his wife, Donna (Bauer) and their three young kids.
Unlike Russert, however, Dan Nicholaou wasn’t a dignitary or a politician. He was not well-known except in his hometown of Dracut. He grew up on Bouchard Avenue in the Collinsville section of town. He was a standout on the Dracut High School football team.
Legendary head coach Ed Murphy said, “He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest, but he was as tough as nails. He wasn’t afraid of anything. He’d run through a tree if I told him to.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Danny got involved in Dracut Pop Warner and turned an anemic system around, first as a coach and then as the director.
I remember the line at Dracut Funeral Home on Lakeview Avenue stretching out to the street. Family, friends, neighbors, teachers, firefighters, police, town officials, area merchants all stood in line for hours to offer condolences. Former Pop Warner players, now adults with children of their own, filed past the casket.
Danny was a salesman. He could convey a sincerity that made people trust him. He was likable and friendly. He always had a joke. For years, he worked for Nassar Ford of Lawrence, then became a sales manager for ADT Security Systems in Lawrence. But that’s only what he did for money. His family was his life. Not only his wife and kids, but his mother, his brothers and sisters, his wife’s parents and her brothers and sisters. Danny was always there.
Over the Father’s Day weekend, as I watched the Russert stories on the news, it hit me how much I miss Danny Nicholaou. And when the Boston Celtics won the championship last week, I missed my brother-in-law even more. Danny was a great sports fan. I just know there would have been steaks on the grill during the playoffs if he was still with us.
It dawned on me that on June 15, 1997, Father’s Day, while the Nicholaou house was filled with people bringing meals for Donna and the kids, an evangelical group called the Promise Keepers had descended on the Mall in Washington, much like the Million Man March a couple of years earlier. The group urges men to take responsibility for their families by putting them first in everything they do.
Danny was never outspoken about his political or religious beliefs. He had no use for a Promise Keepers or a Million Man March. Nobody had to tell him that he was supposed to support his family, materially and emotionally. He did the things that fathers are supposed to do. He didn’t have to be told. Back in the days before cell phones, it was sometimes tough to get a hold of Dan. He’d be off with his kids at a dance recital or horseback-riding lessons.
I dropped by the house one time and Danny was sitting on the sofa with his kids, then 9, 6 and 3. He was watching cartoons. His wife had gone out. I made the mistake of asking him if he was baby-sitting the kids. He shot me a stern look and said, “I’m the father. I don’t baby-sit.” I never made that mistake again.
Television reporters all said that Tim Russert put his family first. He was devoted. Guys like Tim and Dan stand as examples to all husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and neighbors of how to live.
Want to comment? Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.