Hundreds of people lined the hospital hallways to pay respects to Skip Nicholson, a fallen officer they’d never met. It was midafternoon. Ascension Sacred Heart Pensacola hospital was so quiet you could have heard a tongue depressor drop.
Hospital employees filed into the halls, looking for places to stand, wedging against walls, tucking themselves in open doorways, and cramming together like canned oysters. The crowd was three deep in some spots.
“Find your places, people,” said one nurse. Then she did a let’s-hustle clap for effect.
People bowed heads, closed eyes, someone made the Sign of the Cross. There were doctors, nurses, techs, and volunteers. There were officers from the Pensacola Police Department, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department, the Florida Highway Patrol, and the Pensacola Fire Department. There were orderlies, cafeteria workers, and custodians.
They lined every centimeter of available wallspace, forming a human chain that connected from the morgue to the hospital’s front doors.
And it was all for Skip.
Retired deputy Madison “Skip” Nicholson died two nights ago. It all started in Wilcox County, Alabama. A rural county about half the size of Delaware, with a population small enough to fit into your guest bathroom.
On Wednesday, Skip responded to a domestic call in Yellow Bluff with another deputy. The irony is that Skip had retired from doing patrol work long ago. At his age, Skip should have been at home with his boots off, reading the paper, watching Pat Sajack on TV.
Instead he was on the job.
But then, men like Skip aren’t average men. Law enforcement runs deep within their circulatory system. It’s caked in their arteries like LDL. Being a peace officer is just who they are.
Skip had worked with the Wilcox County Sheriff’s Department for 40 years. He had done everything from serving subpoenas to scrubbing the jailhouse toilets.
You don’t just turn it off after you retire.
Skip was shot multiple times in the chest and neck. They airlifted him to Pensacola. He died somewhere over Mobile, mid-flight.
Skip was 78 years old.
“He was everybody’s granddad,” Skip’s son recalls. “Everybody’s uncle. He was my everything.”
Wilcox County Sheriff Earnest Evans said, “He was one of the greatest people I know.”
The hospital morgue doors opened slowly. The intercom played “Taps.” The gurney emerged. And if there was a dry eye in the city, it belonged to an oil portrait.
The casket was wheeled down the long hallway, draped in a crisp American flag. The throngs of strangers who had never shaken Skip’s hand, never seen his easy smile, never enjoyed the pleasure of his conversation, honored him as he passed.
His body was accompanied by six law-enforcement honor guardsmen consisting of three Pensacola Police Department officers, dressed in Class A blues and broad brimmed campaign hats; and three Escambia Sheriff’s Department officers, clad in patrol greens.
“Skip was our brother,” said one officer. “Even though I never met him, we’re the same.”
The gurney made its route through the halls serenaded by sniffles and quietly muttered prayers. And when the casket reached the hospital entrance, the real show began.
Outside waiting were multitudes of law-enforcement vehicles, highway patrol cars, and fire trucks. A legion of uniforms had gathered near the door, standing in tight formation, showing full salute.
After Skip’s remains were loaded into the white hearse, a quick siren yelp came from a lead vehicle. And so began the 130-mile procession back to Wilcox.
The Cadillac coach eased into traffic, escorted by the motor unit. On the Caddy’s tail were upwards of 100 county vehicles. Every lightbar blazing. All high beams on. The air of Escambia County was red and blue that afternoon.
The West Florida sun was growing dim, and the sky was pinkish. Traffic came to a veritable standstill in the City of Five Flags as the police motorcade passed by.
Automobiles pulled to the shoulder to let the convoy through. On Airport Boulevard, a beat up Honda pulled aside. A motorist stepped out of the driver’s seat to watch a tidal wave of police cruisers pass by.
On Highway 29, an old man parked his Ford on the rumble strip, crawled from the front seat, and watched the caravan with his head down, hands folded against his lap.
“I was riding in my cruiser,” said one officer. “I looked out my window and I couldn’t believe how many were showing this outpouring of support.”
They carried Skip forty-nine miles to the Florida-Alabama line. The hearse was intercepted by Alabama law enforcement vehicles near Atmore, where Skip’s procession resumed its homeward journey.
“Riding in that procession feels like a big weight,” says one police officer. “You’re always thinking to yourself, ‘The cop in that hearse up there could be me.’ But look, that’s our job. This is what we are. It’s who we are. I never met Skip, but I know that’s who he was, too.”
And that’s how a few hundred folks who had never met Skip Nicholson sent him home.