DEEP RIVER — Nick Nikkila is living proof you can escape your past.
At 71, he looks back on a high-achieving life dedicated to family, secret military service during the Cold War, and a professional career protecting the environment which took him around the world.
Not bad for a kid whose mother was a grifter who led Nick and his three sisters, Mary, Peggy and Patti, on a merry dance through the Western states, as they fled her scams and cons, one step ahead of the law.
“Most all women are born with a powerful maternal instinct but, every once in a while, one turns out not to have it,” Nikkila said. “As kids, we got one of those. She was a con artist and an embezzler who never met a truth she couldn’t twist. It’s telling that the person she admired most in life and wished to be was Gypsy Rose Lee.”
Now Nikkila spends his time giving back to the Deep River community where he got his start, content with Dee, his wife of 42 years, both spoiling their French bulldogs Burl and Dan and a cat with extra toes called Tillie — named for the grandmother who provided some stability in his early life.
“There’s a special sense of community here — better than anywhere in the world,” he says, relaxing inside “The Finnish Line,” the house he built complete with a wood-paneled Western-style saloon which hearkens to a brief but enjoyable spell as a teenager on the Shoshone’s Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
Students at Naselle schools know Nikkila as the history buff who shows up in full buckskin rig to teach about fur trappers who settled the Northwest after Lewis and Clark. He also assists the Knowledge Bowl team.
Adults know him for serving on the Naselle-Grays River School Board, a couple of Wahkiakum County advisory boards and as commissioner for Wahkiakum County Fire Protection District 3. As a member of the Finnish-American Folk Festival Committee, Nikkila and Grays River’s Lyle Haataja lead the performance subcommittee, and U.S. Navy veteran Nikkila has been adjutant for the Barr-Johnson-Hill American Legion Post for a decade.
After some rather assertive prodding from key members of the Naselle-Deep River community, he has finally decided it’s OK to share the story of his early years.
Nikkila (real first name Richard) is the son of Warner Hugo Nikkila and Elizabeth, known as Betty. His dad was raised in Deep River where his mother Matilda (Tillie) Nikkila kept a small farm.
“Dysfunctional families are much more common today than they used to be 60 to 70 years ago,” said Nikkila. “In that sense, we were ‘trend setters.’ Our dad was a pretty decent sort. A logger and an excellent mechanic, he could fix and operate just about any type of heavy machinery. What he couldn’t do was hold his own against the indomitable force he had married. At first, I think he stood up for himself, but eventually, overcome, he retreated into the bottle.”
His mom’s capers meant they were constantly uprooted. Other than the Dakotas and Texas, Nikkila believes he and his sisters alighted in every state west of the Mississippi. “To say we traveled around a lot would be an understatement,” he says. “It was not uncommon to attend three or more schools in a school year.
“We shed last names like coats. I remember one time I got to choose our next last name. There was a TV show back then called ‘Adventures in Paradise.’ The star in the show was named Adam Troy. So, we became the Troy family at our next stop.
“Without meaningful parental guidance, we kids raised ourselves and kept each other reasonably sane. We were kind of our own version of ‘The Little Rascals.’ In some ways, we had more freedom than other kids, but we were always on the outside looking in with a certain envy of real families.”
Mom’s luck ran out
Eventually, his mom’s luck ran out.
“She’d gotten herself pinched a time or two over the years, but always managed to talk her way out of it. But that kind of lifestyle can’t go on forever. I was attending eighth-grade in Quincy, Calif., when Dad showed up at school and whispered ‘Grab your stuff. We have to get out of here. Your mom has been arrested.’”
It would prove a turning point.
They returned to Deep River and rented the Loukala house just down the hill from his grandmother’s place, allowing him to finish the eighth grade at Rosburg.
“Moving around had resulted in my skipping some grades and in one year I had gone from the second grade to the fifth grade, “ he said. “As a result, I was 11 years old and about to start high school.”
He credits teacher and principal Ralph McGough with recognizing that his life would be better if he spent another year in the eighth grade so he could start high school at an age closer to his peers.
His schooling was disrupted again when his mother was released from prison, but he spent his sophomore year at Naselle High School living with his grandmother.
“At the end of that school year, Mary was able to escape, and I was sucked back into the black hole for another year.
“At 15, in a car she had stolen from the latest boyfriend, I drove her and the other kids from Kansas to California. There I said goodbye for the final time and hopped on a train bound for the Northwest.”
He recalled life was good in Deep River until in early 1963. “I came downstairs to find my grandmother dead on the floor. She was the best of us all and I was devastated by the loss. With her gone, I was homeless.”
With housing, first from Deep River neighbors Gordon and Paulyne Anderson, then a dairy farm job with a room from Naselle residents Otto and Margaret Hill, Nikkila completed his senior year, graduating at 16.
Too young to work in the woods, he spent a summer bucking hay bales, picking up beer bottles along roadways and digging ditches. A month after turning 17, he tracked down his father who signed permission for him to join the Navy.
A stellar aptitude test score during boot camp led to a choice assignment as a cryptologic linguist in the Naval Security Group, translating covert Cuban military activities while Soviet-made MiG 15s and American U2 reconnaissance aircraft had potentially deadly cat-and-mouse encounters during the tense years of the Cold War.
College and beyond
He left the Navy in 1971 as a petty officer first-class and enrolled at Southern Illinois University, in Edwardsville, Ill., earning a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies. He graduated just before Christmas 1975 and married his sweetheart, Dee, coincidentally the daughter of a Navy man, on the same day.
What followed was a career in environmental science, serving state governments and private companies at top level, making multiple trips to Washington, D.C., lobbying for reauthorization of the Federal Clean Air Act and testifying before a Senate committee. Service included stints as director of the Missouri Air Pollution Program and Oregon’s Air Quality Division in a career that included posts in Los Angeles and Montreal, Canada.
In 1988, in what Nikkila considers the high point of his career, he was elected by his peers as the president of the Association of State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administers which represented the air quality directors for all 50 states and four U.S. territories.
He concluded his professional activities as a partner in an environmental consulting venture, Global Sustainable Systems Research, which aided developing countries. That work took him to Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Kazakhstan, India, Turkey, China, Kenya and South Africa.
Embraced by community
All the time Nikkila was moving around in his profession, Dee taught elementary school or special education, retiring in 2008 after 34 years in the classroom.
In Deep River she has been embraced by her neighbors. “People here have been open and friendly,” she said, then added with a smile, “We had the right kind of last name!”
Dee is the president of the American Legion Auxiliary for the Barr-Johnson-Hill post, secretary for the Rosburg Community Club, as well as secretary for the West End Food Pantry.
“The first night I met him, he talked about this place and his grandma,” Dee recalled, smiling at the bond they formed within 10 minutes. “He said he had had a hard time. I was just amazed that he turned out so well.”
They had three sons and have seven grandchildren. Their oldest son, Sean, is a colonel in the Oregon National Guard, and the youngest, Pat, is a colonel in the U.S. Army. Both have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. “We are proud of them. They have done well,” their parents said. Sadly, middle son, Eric, died from what Nikkila described as “a heart weakened by too many physician-prescribed opioids.”
Paying it forward
By 2006, it was time for Nikkila to come home.
“I wanted to retire to Deep River because it has always had a special place in my heart,” he said, mentioning his particular affection for Stanley and Helen Rangila. “Through our many trips over the years to visit the Rangilas, Dee came to love the area as well.
“For years, I’ve felt indebted to all those people who helped me back when I needed it most. In reality, most of them passed on during the 40-plus years I was gone. But, by being involved in various county and community activities, it feels like I am in some small way paying it back.”
He finished building the house, added a roomy shop on his 40 acres, and drove a school bus for a while before settling into retired life as an active volunteer.
Justin Laine, in his 18th year as counselor at Naselle schools, relies on Nikkila to assist his Knowledge Bowl students prepare for competition. “He’s such a versatile and resourceful guy,” he said. “He came back with a real desire to invest in this community that gave so much to him.”
He delights that his wife, Abbie, and their four daughters aged 4 to 10, can be so relaxed at the Nikkilas’ home. “Nick delights in surprising them. He’s a fun guy,” said Laine.
He said Dee Nikkila, too, is a tremendous asset to the community — despite not having roots here. “They are such kindhearted, giving people. They never say no to anything,” he said.
Chuck Hendrickson, a retired Navy officer, serves with Nikkila on the Naselle-Grays River School Board and a Wahkiakum County advisory committee, which taps Nikkila’s professional expertise in environmental issues. “He is a great person to have in the community,” he said. “As a school board member, you need to be a thoughtful person. Nick is certainly that, His life experience is good for a board like that. He’s a graduate of Naselle High School who has lived outside and brings some outside experience.”
For Lisa Nelson, superintendent at Naselle, having Nikkila on the school board inspires her. “Nick is high energy, always thinking,” she said. “He challenges me and others to think deeper and harder. He always looks for ways to solve problems. He is open minded and funny.”
She admires the way he demonstrates how service to country and community are important. “Nick will even throw on a pair of waders and row a boat to get to our school board meetings when high water has him trapped in his driveway. Now that is dedication!”
Service comes naturally
For Nikkila, such service is natural.
“If you count money as the measure of success, then I’m a failure. If, however, success means you can feel the world is an infinitesimal bit better because you existed, and you can take pride in the positive lives of your children and grandchildren, then Dee and I are living successful lives.”
His eyes twinkle as he speaks of his sisters’ successes, noting the younger two escaped their mother’s influence while he was in the service. He is proud they all earned their higher education credentials without the G.I. Bill that aided him. Mary of Keizer, Ore., had a career in child welfare; Peggy, of Astoria, was a school teacher; and Patti, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, worked for an oil company.
“Sure, it would have been nice to have a regular family life,” said Nikkila. “But, like the ‘Boy Named Sue,’ the way we lived made us stronger, more resilient, more independent and probably a little more street smart. Those traits have served us well over the years.
“Independently, we each made the conscious decision to create a positive meaning to our lives. You get one shot in this life. You, and only you, have the power to make that life a positive or a negative. I have little patience for those who claim their past has held them back.”
Editor’s Note: The subject of this story, Nick Nikkila, is a correspondent for the Chinook Observer and while he had no role in its preparation, he inevitably provided the writer with a cornucopia of comments and anecdotes which are woven into this article, although myriad details have been omitted for space reasons. Nikkila wrote a booklet titled, “A Collection of Recollections,” that includes memories of his grandmother Tillie and humorous recollections of Deep River during the golden age of the 1950s and ’60s. The booklet was given to the Appelo Archives Center for use as a fund raiser. It can be purchased from the center for $5, plus tax.