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In a room full of friends, Floyd Nicholson hardly knew where to turn.
Every time another person stepped through the doors Thursday of the Arts Center in Greenwood, Nicholson was pulled away from one longtime friend to greet another. Everywhere he turned, there were people whose lives he'd helped transform, and who had made indelible marks on his own life.
From growing up as the tenth child of Marion and Nona Nicholson, Floyd doggedly pursued a life of service to his community. He graduated Brewer High School and South Carolina State University, making friends and building relationships every step of the way.
He'd go on to be a beloved biology teacher and coach at Greenwood High School, serve on Greenwood's city council before being elected the first Black mayor of Greenwood and the first Black state senator to represent District 10.
On Thursday, in honor those years of service, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto — South Carolina's highest civilian honor. After a reception honoring him with speeches from his wife, Mamie Nicholson, classmates and fellow politicos, state Sen. Mike Gambrell and former state Rep. Anne Parks presented him with the award.
"The first time I walked into the senate in 2016, I didn't know where the bathroom was," Gambrell said. "But I had this man right here, and I knew after talking with him for five minutes, he was the real deal."
Gambrell said Nicholson served as a mentor and treated him with respect as if the freshman senator had experience beyond his years. Despite representing different political parties, Nicholson always told him their job was to serve every one of their constituents.
"He knows everybody," Parks said. "I started out with him on council and we would go to conferences and events together. There was never a time where he didn't see somebody he knew."
The consensus in the room was that with Nicholson, what you see is what you get. Anyone who's met him knows he greets everyone with a broad, bright smile, a firm handshake and a spark for conversation. When Bill Kimler, chairperson of the Greenwood Democratic Party, tried to pick Nicholson's brain for tips on running for office, he could barely get a word in — Nicholson seemed to know everyone at the restaurant they went to.
"He campaigned with his wife, pushing their twins down the street in a stroller," Kimler said. "It was a great story of a normal man with a big heart, and it really helped take the mystery out of what it's like to run for office and serve your community. You don't need to be a saint or have a superpower, you just need the heart."
Nicholson has had the heart long before he sought public office.
"I have known Floyd since I came to Lander in 1974," Bessie Williams said after giving Nicholson a warm hug as she came into the reception. "He would come over to meet the students at Lander."
As one of the few Black students on campus at the time, Williams said it meant the world to her to have the beloved coach and large-looming community figure come and take an interest in young minds seeking higher education. It sparked a lifelong friendship: They went on to work together at the Whitten Center and continued connecting through church functions.
"He has just been a friend all through my life, and you don't find people who care enough to do that," Williams said.
Dr. Deevid Miller traveled in from Florida for Thursday's reception because Nicholson has been one such friend to him since he was a teenager. Miller was a basketball player at Greenwood High School, a freshman in '73, and he knew the younger Nicholson as "Coach Nick."
"He was one of those kinds of coaches everybody wanted to play for. He was strict, very strict. He didn't let you play if you weren't perfect in the classroom," Miller said.
But Coach Nick brought out the best in his athletes because he believed in them, and urged them to give all they could to develop their talents. He was, as so many said Thursday, a role model. Miller was class president and excelled in academics, so "at the end of the day, because of that, not a lot of people were pushing me."
"Coach pushed me," he said. "You always had to do more."
Everyone in the room had a story about Nicholson. But those charming moments with him weren't what brought so many people out to support and honor him Thursday — Annette Edwards said it's his humility and honesty.
"He didn't allow his ego and the ways he got blessed to get in the way — being mayor and serving as a senator," she said. "He is always Floyd."