Garlic Festival director battling pancreatic cancer

– In this his 20th year as executive director of the Gilroy
Garlic Festival Association, Richard Nicholls is facing the
challenge of his life: He is battling pancreatic cancer.
By Lori Stuenkel

Gilroy – In this his 20th year as executive director of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, Richard Nicholls is facing the challenge of his life: He is battling pancreatic cancer.

Nicholls, who works year-round to stage a successful Garlic Festival each July, and has done so with energy and commitment for two decades, is preparing for weeks and months of various treatments. But he prefers to focus beyond that.

“I’m staying positive,” he said. “I’m going to get through this and get over it to get back to normal and back to work.”

The news came after doctors last Monday tested his gallbladder and pancreas because he has been experiencing discomfort in his mid-section, and his eyes and face have become jaundiced. A diabetic, Nicholls, 60, wondered whether something in his lifestyle was to blame, but said doctors told him little is known about the cancer’s cause.

“I have been told that, in a way, I’m fortunate that the tumor is in the head of the pancreas, where it caused some things to happen that caused me to go to the doctor,” Nicholls said.

He does not know the size of the tumor that has grown on his pancreas, a gland that lies behind the stomach and secretes digestive enzymes and produces insulin. But doctors at Stanford Medical Center have decided to wait for four weeks before operating until radiation therapy shrinks the tumor that has grown around several arteries.

“It would be out right now had it not grown around those arteries,” Nicholls said. “This is just a little delay to get me to where they want me to be.

“That’s my goal, that’s what I’m headed toward, that’s my mentality right now: That they’re going to remove the tumor, I’m going to get better and get back to work.”

He says he plans to continue working while the radiation treatment is ongoing – it’s better than sitting at home “staring at the walls,” he said. Recovery from surgery could mean weeks to several months away from his office on Monterey Street.

Nicholls wanted to assure Gilroyans and thousands other Garlic Festival visitors from across the country and the globe that the festival is in good hands, between the association’s two other staff members, Joann Kessler and Chris Filice; the Board of Directors, including Festival President Jennifer Speno; and all 4,000 volunteers.

“We’ve got a wonderful board of directors this year,” he said, adding that Kessler and Filice combined are veterans of more than 20 festivals. “They know what needs to be done, and how to get it done.”

Kessler, assistant executive director of the association who has worked with Nicholls for 15 years, said she will be doing whatever it takes to afford Nicholls the time to take care of himself.

“He takes his position very, very seriously,” Kessler said. “And he never lets the mission of the Garlic Festival not be top-of-mind, in terms of benefiting non-profits, in terms of the quality of the event, in terms of the festival benefiting the City of Gilroy in many aspects.”

Just as the Gilroy and Garlic Festival family come together to serve up an array of garlicky dishes in Gourmet Alley or pour beer for thirsty revelers, said Jim Habing of Habing Family Funeral Home and president of the 2000 festival.

“I think we’re kind of all stunned,” he said. “(Nicholls is) the main backbone of our festival and besides that, he’s become a real good friend. That’s what happens when you know somebody for so long and you work side-by-side with them. That’s what makes Gilroy such a nice community … and we always have the ups and share with the downs. Just like we do with the festival – we come together and make it happen – that’s what we’re hoping will happen for Dick Nicholls.”

Nicholls took over the Garlic Festival Association helm from David Bouchard in time for the 1985 festival, after volunteering for the previous six years.

“I was just really enjoying what I was doing with the festival, and I kind of threw my hat into the ring and said I’ll do it for a couple of years,” Nicholls said. “I wasn’t looking at 20 years, it just kind of flew by.”

No two festivals are the same, he said, because the different volunteer presidents and committee chairs add their own flavor to the garlic celebration every year. Flame-ups, garlic bread, the cook-off and talented entertainment attract visitors and keep them coming to Gilroy, but with so many people contributing to such a large event, each festival has made an impression.

“They all kind of stand out, for different reasons,” Nicholls said. “Some, for the people. Some, for the challenges we overcame. Some for the surprises that happened – good or bad.”

Gilroy Police Chief Gregg Giusiana was president of the festival in 1988. For the 10th anniversary of the festival, he recruited many of the past presidents and directors to return. As a volunteer with the festival since it’s second year, Giusiana said he has seen first-hand Nicholls’ dedication to giving back to others.

“I have nothing but praise for (Nicholls),” he said. “I think he’s a very kind, very thoughtful individual, and just a pleasure to work with.”

Nicholls has a few irons in the fire for the upcoming festival on July 29 to 31, including soliciting corporate sponsors and developing some new strategies for parking.

“What has always impressed me about him is that he is a visionary and an extremely intelligent man,” Kessler said. “He sees things that the festival can accomplish and just works toward those goals.”

As he looks forward to the 27th annual festival, Nicholls said at the same time he has little control over how involved he will remain in the coming months. His wife, Brigitte, and 20-year-old twin sons are helping him keep a positive attitude, he said.

“It’s like you can imagine,” he said. “It’s not happy times, but I think under the circumstances my wife and boys are dealing with it extremely well.”

Kessler said that, as word of Nicholls’ condition has spread through the Gilroy Garlic Festival community, support has poured in.

“I’ve just been overwhelmed with all this,” Nicholls said. “So many people have stopped by and so many people have called. … I’m very, very lucky to have as many friends as I have that do care.”

Festival milestones

1979 – Gilroy hosts the first Garlic Festival, and Richard Nicholls parks cars as a volunteer, more than 15,000 people attend

1981 – Festival attracts 90,000 visitors

1985 – Garlic Festival VII is the first during Nicholls’ tenure as executive director of Garlic Festival Ass’n

1988 – One-millionth visitor at Garlic Festival

1993 – 130,000 visitors revel in the stinking rose at the 15th festival

1998 – Toe rings are the hot-ticket item at the 20th festival

2002 – Herbie bobbleheads fly off the shelves at the 24th festival

2003 – The Garlic Festival celebrates 25 years

2004 – Volunteers have earned more than $6.5 million since inception