Growing up in Baltimore, Md., Kathleen “Kathy” Martin Nicholl drew pictures of horses, read about horses, and hoped one day to have a horse.
She began to fulfill that dream when she and her husband started Fern Hill Farm near Cullowhee, N.C., in 1974. First came a barn, and over the years they bought and raised various horses, who enjoyed the large pasture and creek. Kathy became an active member of the North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC) in 1989, competing in multiple trail rides in the Southeast (over 1750 competitive miles), volunteering to support both riders and horses on rides, and editing the regional newsletter for over 10 years. She loved her Tennessee Walking Horses and was cremated with her NATRC riding jacket and a stack of horse pictures.
Kathy became a pioneer in the computer industry when she graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in mathematics in 1965, having taken FORTRAN and COBOL, the only offerings for undergraduates. She initially worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) near Washington, D.C., and later faced gender discrimination as she sought a position as a computer programmer upon moving to Austin, Texas, to join her graduate student husband as a newlywed. After they relocated to North Carolina in 1970, she found a job in the Computer Center at Western Carolina University (WCU). At the time, punch cards were still in use and computer terminals were just being phased in.
In 1983, Kathy joined a WCU co-worker to take over a Radio Shack franchise in Sylva, N.C. Being female owners of a computer store was ground-breaking. She sold her share of the business to her friend a few years later, and then focused on raising her two children, Emily and Matthew, as well as doing community service work.
Kathy volunteered for more than 25 years with what is now known as Harris Hospice, preparing their newsletters and performing various administrative tasks. She then worked with United Christian Ministries until health concerns caused her to retire from that fulfilling work. Much earlier she had enjoyed the challenging job of co-leading a Girl Scout troop full of squabbling junior high and high school girls while Emily was a scout.
In her last decade, Kathy was an active member of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sylva, N.C., preparing church bulletins, coordinating ECW (Episcopal Church Women) fundraisers, participating in book study groups and using her still-expanding computer skills to incorporate music into the church’s Zoom-based meetings that began during the pandemic.
Had it not been for another love, dancing, she surely would never have met her Texas-born husband, James R. “Jim” Nicholl in June 1966. While working for NSA, Kathy attended a Washington area singles dance, for which the men were required to be military officers or college graduates, and the women were required to be at least 18. Jim was in Maryland just starting 42 days of training in Army Intelligence. He spotted a tall, willowy brunette who looked like she was having fun, and he asked her to dance. They spent the evening dancing and talking, and the couple never looked back. They celebrated their Golden wedding anniversary at a special vow renewal ceremony at St. John’s Episcopal Church in June 2018, with their family, the church family and other guests.
After a six-year battle with two types of breast cancer (plus a broken hip and ankle, and hip replacement), Kathy passed away on Sept. 29, 2021, with her husband, her son, and her only sibling, Susan Winterbottom, at her side; and with her daughter and son-in-law, Philip Hopfner, on the telephone. She took her last breaths as her children sang “Amazing Grace” to her. She is survived by her husband, two children, son-in-law, daughter-in-law (Jill Ludwig Nicholl), two grandchildren (Austin and Lily), sister, four nieces, six nephews, and Misty, her last horse.
From a condolence note: “All of us at St. John’s will miss Kathy, but we are blessed by her memory.”
A memorial service will be held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in spring 2022.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Kathy Nicholl’s name can be made to the Building Fund of St. John’s Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 175, Sylva, N.C., 28779.