MANATEE -- After 27 years and 40,000-plus hours as a marriage and family therapist in Manatee County, a man of faith is leaving the area.
Earl Nichols, 63, minister of pastoral counseling at Trinity United Methodist Church at 3200 Manatee Ave. W. for most of those 27 years, has accepted a position as senior counselor at the Pastoral Institute in Columbus, Ga.
For Nichols and his wife, Bea Haledjian, who have been married more than 41 years, leaving Bradenton has been an emotional body slam, showing that even a counselor and his wife are not immune to the pain of transition, they said.
"I was telling someone that I was leaving and I
burst into tears," said Bea Haledjian. "This is the longest either one of us have lived in one place in our lives. We raised our kids here and loved people here. It's bittersweet, but we will be moving closer to daughter, Sara Nichols, who lives in North Carolina."
Their son, Brian Nichols, lives with his wife and two children in Connecticut.
Earl and Bea, who are packing up their northwest Bradenton home this week, will leave for Georgia on Thursday.
Trinity has planned a special open-to-the-public going-away reception in the couple's honor at 10 a.m. Sunday at the church.
So, who is this man who has touched so many lives?
"He has a gift," Haledjian said of her husband. "I believe it's a calling for him."
Colleagues said Nichols is known for forgetting to charge people who he knew were financially strapped or charging them at the bottom of the sliding scale. He was often sought out for funerals because of his caring and insight, Haledjian said.
Caught in his busy office at the church earlier this week, Nichols said he focused during his time in Bradenton on families, couples and individuals.
"I remember I arrived in Bradenton in January of 1986 from Titusville, Pa., where it gets snow in October and still has a foot in April," Nichols said with a laugh. "Titusville was a small town without a counselor at all. I was the best-trained person so I felt called to do as much as I could there."
He and Bea moved toBradenton with the understanding that he would have some pastoral duties at Trinity along with "some counseling," but as it turned out he did counseling his whole time.
Nichols also served at Garden Community Church for 11 years, but was still connected to Trinity during that time, he said.
"With couples, my main aim was communication and boundary setting," Nichols said when asked to summarize his work in Bradenton. "With families, it was often communication and having better respect for other members of the family."
Of all his clients in Bradenton, perhaps adolescents intrigued Nichols the most.
"The world they live in has changed dramatically and their lives in it have changed dramatically," Nichols said.
"When I came to Bradenton 27 years ago, adolescents lived in a world of certainty. There were rights and wrongs, and clear principles. In the world now, there is no clear right and wrong. There are no clear standards on how to live. Life is much more difficult. It amazes me how many adolescents still handle it well."
Something a Bradenton teen said to Nichols will never be forgotten.
"I had caught him in a lie," Nichols said. "When I confronted him with it, he said to me, 'Earl, I am just using words and words mean nothing.'"
The boy's comment struck Nichols deep in his heart. He realized it was symbolic of an entire generation.
"This is the kind of mentality of many young people today," Nichols said. "They don't lie because to lie means something is true."
Even though they don't put stock in absolutes like truth and falsehood, young people Nichols has counseled do have things they value.
"They are loyal to each other, sometimes to a fault," Nichols said. "They are really passionate. They really dislike hearing people criticized and judged. There are groups of kids in high schools who form around the principle that we will not criticize each other."
The recent shooting of elementary school students in Connecticut hit Nichols hard. His daughter-in-law's parents live in Danbury, a few miles from Newtown.
"First shock, then despair," Nichols said. "From my therapeutic point of view, the kids who have survived will live with the haunting question, 'My friend died and I feel guilty and ashamed. Why did I live?'"
The shooter felt isolated and alone, Nichols said.
"This was an act, I believe, of a person who knew what he was doing and it didn't seem like an impulsive act," Nichols said.
"This was an act that was methodical, cold, planned. To do something like this, he had to dehumanize and diminish everything. He shot objects. This is a young man felt isolated and alone. He had some animosity to work out. He had to dehumanize and diminish everything to do it. He shot objects, not people."