Much of George Nickolaus’ service to Columbia as mayor, city attorney, city counselor and municipal judge happened in a single room at the Howard Municipal Building. In fact, the room’s purpose seemed to shift right along with his career.
While he was city attorney and counselor, the large room on the top floor of the Howard Building served as a municipal courtroom. Later, when he was mayor, it doubled as the City Council chambers. When he became an associate municipal judge, he presided in the same room, which by then was used strictly as a municipal courtroom.
It seems proper, then, that the newly renovated historic room now bears Nickolaus’ name, thanks to a resolution passed by the Columbia City Council on April 17. The entire Howard Building, including the courtroom, has been undergoing some remodeling and refurbishment that is set to be completed by May 19, says Building Regulations Supervisor John Sudduth.
“This is a fitting tribute,” said Mayor Darwin Hindman, who attended the MU School of Law with Nickolaus. “He was an outstanding Columbian, outstanding mayor, and further proof that lawyers do make great mayors.”
Charlene Nickolaus, Nickolaus’ wife of 48 years, was pleased with the honor, calling it a “great moment in the history of our family.”
“He was born with that spirit of wanting to help people,” Nickolaus said of her husband. “... He seemed to have that as part of his makeup.”
Shortly after her husband’s death, in 2003, Nickolaus began exploring the possibility of getting Columbia’s first parking garage — at Eighth and Cherry streets — named after him because he had a leading role in getting it built. Then-assistant city attorney Rose Wibbenmeyer came up with the idea of naming the courtroom for him.
“I remember I met his son Nathan at a conference and mentioned the idea to him,” and he liked it, she said. Then she spoke to her boss, City Counselor Fred Boeckmann, and he put it into motion with the help of then-City Manager Ray Beck and Beck’s successor, Bill Watkins.
Wibbenmeyer said that when she started as an assistant city counselor in fall 2001, the backlog of cases was six to eight months long. So Nickolaus volunteered to come in every Monday and try cases. Wibbenmeyer and others were able to cut the backlog to four weeks “all because of all that work that George did before he died.”
She admired Nickolaus because “he was a good listener and also very knowledgeable in the law,” and she knew that whether she won or lost “he always did what he thought was right.”
“Not many people are like that; he served in so many capacities for so long,” Wibbenmeyer said. “It is a beautiful courtroom, and considering all the work George did for the city, it would be a fitting tribute.”
Nathan Nickolaus said his father was always dedicated to Columbia. That’s part of the reason he chose a burial site at Columbia Cemetery that would allow him to look down over the city.
“He was very proud to have served in every branch of Columbia government, and all of it he did in that room,” Nathan Nickolaus said. “He was always so devoted to Columbia, and I grew up in that environment.”
Nickolaus has followed in his father’s footsteps as city counselor for Jefferson City.
“I’ve got municipal law in my blood,” he said.
Beck worked closely with Nickolaus when Beck was the city’s Public Works director and Nickolaus was city counselor. They worked together, for example, to acquire land for Columbia Regional Airport and to amend the city charter. Beck said the courtroom should be named after Nickolaus because “George did a lot of things for the city; he helped in the development of policy that has guided the city.”
“In addition to being a great public servant, he was a great family man and just a fine individual,” Beck said.
Another friend of Nickolaus’ was former Boone County Circuit Judge Frank Conley, who had known Nickolaus since the late 1950s. They attended law school together, and both worked for firms in Columbia.
Nickolaus “was a person that never took himself too seriously,” Conley said, adding that people who aren’t wrapped up in themselves make better public servants.
“He was a down-to-earth person that did his job, he had tremendous integrity ... very level, even-keeled and able to listen to both sides of a problem and then make a decision,” Conley said.
Conley said it’s important to honor people who display unique dedication to their communities, and “George certainly did.”
Municipal Judge Bob Aulgur has suggested in a report to the City Council that other court employees who have died during their service to the city should also be honored. Those include Tim Heinsz, who was an associate municipal judge, and Robert Potts, who had a long career as a bailiff. Aulgur would like to display framed photos of the two. The council will consider his idea at tonight’s council meeting.