Written by DIANE GASPER-O’BRIEN
Hays always has been a special place for Doug and Cindy Nichols.
It’s where they spent most of their married life, where they watched their children grow up, graduate from high school and prepare to go off to college and to professional careers — and to war.
A few of those things probably come to mind for the Nichols couple, who now live in Palco, as they top the hill on U.S. Highway 183 just north of Hays.
The sight of the city, and Interstate 70, took on a whole lot more meaning for the Nichols family Wednesday.
The Kansas Department of Transportation installed two brown and white signs,near the on ramps on both sides of the interstate that read “CW2 Bryan J. Nichols Fallen Veterans Memorial Interchange.”
Bryan Nichols, the youngest of four siblings and a pilot for the U.S. Army, was one of 30 Americans killed when their Chinook helicopter was shot down by enemy fire in Afghanistan in August. It was the deadliest single loss for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Also on the Chinook that day was CW4 David Carter, 47, a 1982 graduate of Hays High School who lived in Colorado.
Nichols, 31, was a 1998 graduate of Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, the same school from which Kansas Sen. Allen Schmidt, also a native of Hays, graduated when it was known as St. Joseph Military Academy.
Earlier this year, Schmidt, a retired Army Medical Service Corps colonel, introduced Senate Bill 355 to his fellow legislators, in an effort to get approval to put up signs honoring Nichols and other fallen heroes.
Another Hays native and St. Joseph Military alum, Rep. Eber Phelps, D-Hays, introduced the same bill in the House as HB 2614.
“I talked to every single senator and asked if they were interested in co-sponsoring (the sign project),” Schmidt said. “When I introduced this on the senate floor, I had $400 immediately.”
Earlier this spring, legislators passed legislation to name the interchange.
Approximately $3,500 was raised from private donations. Plans are in the works to install two more, larger signs on I-70 leading into Hays. Donations are being accepted for those signs, which Schmidt said would cost between $8,000 and $9,000 because of their size.
Approximately 200 people came to watch the unveiling of the sign at the KDOT building Hays, some in vehicles, others on motorcycles — the American Legion Riders and the Kansas Patriot Guard also participated — and even some by plane.
Schmidt joined a group of legislators from Topeka, including Phelps, who all caught a ride on the plane from Kansas City carrying yet another TMP grad, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.
The date for the unveiling ceremony was set weeks ago, and legislators in Topeka are in the middle of a redistricting battle.
Schmidt wasn’t about to miss a vote that affected his district, so he made alternate plans for a master of ceremonies, asking TMP Principal Bill DeWitt to fill in for him.
When Schmidt learned just about lunchtime the Senate wasn’t going to run the redistricting bill Wednesday, he made quick plans to join Colyer and attend the ceremony in person.
“I’m just so glad I was able to be there,” Schmidt said. “It’s so heartening to see this family.”
After short talks by Schmidt, KDOT Secretary Mike King and Colyer, Doug Nichols removed the cover from the sign sitting on a stage on the south side of the KDOT building, along with the help of the pilot’s 11-year-old son, Braydon Nichols from Kansas City, Mo. Standing close by were Cindy Nichols and Bryan Nichols’ widow, Mary Nichols from Kansas City, Mo.
Capt. Mark Leisten from the New Century AirCenter in Gardner — where Bryan Nichols was a member of the Bravo Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment — flew to Hays for the ceremony, where he also hovered his Chinook over the signs as they were being placed in the ground. He also made a trip to Palco to fly over Nichols’ grave in Pleasantview Cemetery.
Doug Nichols, who also served in the military along with four of his siblings, said while his family is honored by the signs, he is happy all the fallen are being honored, which is what his son would have wanted.
“It equally salutes the other heroes who lost their lives on Aug. 6, 2011,” Doug Nichols said.
“This is about all veterans who have given their lives in service to the nation,” Schmidt said. “Doug said that Bryan would have wanted it that way rather than being singled out. That, in itself, says much about Bryan and makes an important point for all of us.”
King said there is no doubt the signs will be seen by many.
“Every day, (thousands of) vehicles pass through this intersection,” King said, calling the intersection of U.S. Highway 183 and I-70 “the crossroads of America.”
“They will remember one of the best your town has produced,” King said.