Shirley Nicholson – A Tribute

We remember Shirley Nicholson, January 8, 1925 – November 5, 2013

Jan Nicolaas Kind – Brazil

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Shirley Nicholson

In previous issues of Theosophy Forward we honored some outstanding Theosophists such as: Dr. Richard Brooks, Ianthe Hoskins and Einar Adalsteinsson. In this issue we will remember yet another notable Theosophist and teacher, Shirley Nicholson. I do believe it is important to realize that, in order to know in which direction the vehicles of Theosophy are heading in the future, it is vital to also look backwards once in a while, and find inspiration in what others did during their lifetimes. Looking back, we are able to create a decent, better and prosperous Theosophical future!

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Winston Salem, North Carolina around 1965. Mae Nicholson, Shirley’s mother-in-law, husband Bill Nicholson, Shirley and daughter Nic. Photo taken in the house where Bill grew up.

I met Shirley Nicholson in person at Krotona in the late nineties and remember her as a no-nonsense, straightforward woman. She was kindhearted, showing great interest in what fields other students were contributing to the cause, and she demonstrated a profound knowledge of the teachings. I was given the opportunity to deliver a short talk for students at Krotona and during the questions and answers session afterwards, Shirley pointed to some of the statements I had made and pondered into detail on these, which to me at the time was quite surprising and inspiring. Many years later I corresponded with her, asking permission to have her excellent book Ancient Wisdom –Modern Insight republished as a Theosophy Forward E-book.

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Photo from around 1974, from left to the right: Daughter Carol, Bill, daughter Nic and Shirley Nicholson

It is with great joy that in our first quarter 2016 issue we pay tribute to Shirley Nicholson by publishing four articles from her voluminous oeuvre: “Doctrine and Dogma”, “A Holistic View of Karma”, “Shamanism: An Expanded View of Reality” and ”Who Am 1?What Does It Mean To Be Human?”

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Celebrating with cats and dogs on the couch, Christmas 2011. Standing:
sisters Carol and Nic. Sitting: Shirley and Janine Delwarte, who is Nic's partner

I must thank all of Shirley’s friends at Krotona but also Carol Nicholson, Ed Abdill, Ralph Hannon, Betty Bland, Maria Parisen and John Algeo for sharing their memories and thoughts. Janet Kerschner at Olcott in Wheaton was, like always, my formidable guide in tracing the articles.


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Happy in Spain, Barcelona 1994 – Shirley lectured in Madrid and later also at the ITC in Naarden, the Netherlands, from left to the right: Shirley, Angel Torres and Carol

Shirley’s Krotona Brothers and Sisters

Shirley Nicholson joined the Theosophical Society in 1944, at the age of nineteen. Active in the New York TS and Pumpkin Hollow Retreat Center, she was a longtime friend and coworker of Dora and Fritz Kunz, Emily Sellon and Renée Weber, who inspired one another to bridge Theosophy and science.

Early in the 1980s, TSA president Dora Kunz invited Shirley and her husband, Dr. William (Bill) Nicholson, to work at Olcott. Shirley served as senior editor of Quest Books for ten years. Shirley authored several books, including Ancient Wisdom – Modern Insight, which was later updated with physicist Ralph Hannon. The books and anthologies she coauthored include an adaptation of Annie Besant’s Though Power (with John Algeo); Karma: Rhythmic Return to Harmony; and Gaia’s Hidden Life.

Shirley retired to the Krotona School of Theosophy in Ojai, California, where she first served as director of the Krotona School, then as the institute’s vice-president and resident head. She continued to write for Theosophical journals and to participate in Krotona’s life and work until a few months before her passing. She remained devoted to daughters Carol and Nic, was happiest with family, friends and students, and faced each day with unfailing optimism.

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Shirley and Carol in England, Stonehenge in 1988 for the Centennial of
the Secret Doctrine  

Daughter Carol writes about her mother’s passing

On Mom's last day, we knew she was close to passing away and my sister was on her way up from the Los Angeles area. Early that morning, I got a call to remind me of a doctor's appointment. If it had been the night before, I would have cancelled it. But I remembered when my Dad passed away at Olcott in 1987, Mom had been with him for 2-3 days straight. A nurse convinced her to go home and get some sleep and Dad died soon after she had left. So I understood that it is easier for some people to let go when they are alone.

Knowing this, I kept the doctor's appointment. At this point, Mom was not conscious but we still talked to her. So I told Mom that I was going to an appointment for about an hour and that Nic would also be here in about an hour. If she wanted to pass while she was alone, this was her opportunity. And if she wanted us with her, we would stay for as long as needed. I got the call 20 minutes later that she was gone. So I believe she heard me and took the opportunity to cross over while she was alone. Towards the end of her life, she talked of how much she would miss us and perhaps we were holding on to her energetically although we had verbally told her several times it was okay to move on.

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Shirley on tour “down under” in Australia, holding the inevitable Koala bear

Ed Abdill

Mary and I met Shirley Nicholson when we joined the TS, I in 1959 and Mary in 1973. Shirley was a member of the NYTS and a frequent visitor to Pumpkin Hollow camp. She and her husband, Bill, were both dedicated Theosophists. For years they lived in New Jersey but got to the NYTS frequently. When Dora Kunz became National President, Shirley and Bill soon moved to the TS headquarters at Olcott where they both worked for the TS. Bill died there, and not long afterward Shirley moved to Ojai, California, where she worked for the Society at Krotona for the balance of her life.

Shortly after Bill's passing, Shirley was visiting a location one time-zone to the west of the TSA headquarters, where she still lived. Shirley regularly meditated at the same time every morning.  But in the different time-zone, this would be an hour later. Bill appeared in her thoughts and she told him “Why are you so early; come back in an hour.”  Later, she thought this was so funny, once she realized that on the other side, people don't wear watches.

Shirley, Mary, and I were good friends and co-workers for the Society. I owe Shirley a debt of gratitude for her book, Ancient Wisdom - Modern Insight. It was that book that inspired me to create the Foundations of the Ageless Wisdom course. That course eventually became a video course that has been used throughout the Theosophical world.

Shirley lived to a ripe old age, but always seemed to be too tired for much activity. Yet, when her interest was perked up she seemed to have no end of energy. Mary and I traveled with her to the Secret Doctrine Centenary celebration in England in 1988 and afterward went to the Lake District. Shirley often felt too tired to accompany us on outings, but she did not mind if we went off on a hike without her while she and her daughter, Carol, did something less strenuous. Shirley was keenly interested to see Stratford Upon Avon because of its connection with Shakespeare. When we arrived there, Shirley took off like a youngster. I said, “Shirley, look at you!” She replied she felt better that day, never realizing that it was her enthusiasm that gave her the energy.

When Shirley was appointed Corresponding Secretary of the ES in the United States, a friend asked me if I thought she would do a good job. I replied, “She'll do as well as anyone and probably out live us all but not have enough energy to attend our funerals.” I told Shirley what I had said. She laughed and replied, “You are probably right.” Despite her often feeling physically tired, Shirley never stopped giving all her energy to Theosophical work. Her dedication to the cause and her self sacrifice were exemplary.

Mary and I visited Shirley in a nursing home shortly before she died. We were glad to have had an opportunity to say au revoir to our friend knowing that we are destined to meet again in a future incarnation, all of us working for the Theosophical cause once more.

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Shirley “in blue” with sunglasses and hat in Hawaii in the good company of a tree

Ralph Hannon

I first met Shirley in the late 1970s. I actually knew her husband, Bill, first when he and I were on several committees that Dora Kunz ran. While Dora was president of the TSA, she would always try to bring in the best minds to promote Theosophy; especially for future generations. At our meetings Shirley would occasionally joins us. I knew that she was the senior editor over at the Theosophical Publishing House (or TPH as we called it). She had a busy working schedule and sometimes would be in and out, depending on what she was working on.  

Once or twice during those early years, I would get a call from Shirley asking about a science topic regarding some book manuscript she was perusing. I also remember the first time I went to her office on the second floor in TPH (now known as the Joy Mill’s building, or simply the Quest Book Store by most), I was impressed. There were many books and many manuscripts on her desk, chairs, floor, and in her large handbag. Her questions to me were always ‘crisp’ and exact. I often thought she would make a good lawyer. She was the same way when she joined us for the committee meetings. She always wanted things to be clear and a“basic understanding” was important. I loved her for that. All too often, I felt sometimes we agreed on things that felt a little fuzzy; at least to me. 

I think the greatest tribute for Shirley would be her book, Ancient Wisdom – Modern Insight. I was frequently asked by TS members what would be a good science book to read; especially, one that would help them understand the relationship of science and theosophy. In many cases they seem to think that it needed to be a heavy book in quantum physics! Instead, I would always recommend Shirley’s book, and tell them this was a much better book to start with. Otherwise, they would have to enroll in a university quantum mechanics course for a year. This was okay along as they had a semester of differential equations in their math background! Normally, this was enough for them to scurry away and buy Shirley’s book.   

It was my honor to work on the new edition of Shirley’s book bringing it up to date a few years before she died. She still expected the crispness and understanding that she used as editor. There was always this integrity that she maintained in her work, and that’s the way I shall remember her.

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Joy Mills, Shirley Nicholson and Nelda Samarel, all directors of the Krotona School at one point. Photo probably taken around 1992

Betty Bland

When a crisis about the school or guests would finally get resolved, Shirley would say, “That's all right. Next time we will do better.” In other words she would not hold on to the difficulty but let it go and use it as a learning experience for the next time. That is a valuable trait.

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Book signing at the Krotona School for a fan probably around 2012

Maria Parisen

Two vivid memories of Shirley come to my mind.  

Shirley and I worked closely together here in Krotona for several years, when I was her assistant.  We had some serious and lively disagreements, but near the end of her life, Shirley shared a time I had forgotten, saying it was her favorite. Facing an unexpected deadline for an important letter, we composed the document line by line at the computer, and then happily sent it off in good time. Despite our differences, Shirley was dwelling in the creative energy, harmony and joy of those years. I was very grateful for her gentle reminder.           

Recovering from an illness, Shirley lived for several weeks in an assisted living center in town. She fulfilled all her duties as Krotona's Resident Head from her small apartment, including holding regular meetings of our executive committee. Seating was limited. I remember sitting in her wheelchair, writing on my lap, as Shirley led the meeting from her bed. Later that evening, she would welcome family and friends, including the family dogs. Shirley was above all mindful of her executive role. But she also loved family and community, adapting quite easily to whatever special medical care was needed.    

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QUOTE by Shirley: “It seems the way for us to present Theosophy truly but undogmatically is for us to become steeped in the doctrine, to come to understand its principles for ourselves and begin to bring them into our experience, not merely to rely on the authority of others.”

(From the article “Doctrine and Dogma” published elsewhere in Theosophy Forward)

John Algeo

Shirley Nicholson and I were old friends in this life, from shared times at a Theosophical retreat in the North Carolina mountains, and doubtless have been old friends in many a life before.

My last message from her came to me in April 2010, in which she wrote: “Dear John, It’s great that your heart surgery and recovery went so well. I can relate to balance problems and undependable legs. My downfall started with my falling down. After several of those I ended up in the hospital and got good physical therapy. It was found that I have . . . an arrhythmia of the heart, and I assumed that was the cause of the falls. Maybe so, but now a cardiologist is suggesting neurological problems. Anyway I use a walker . . . a 3-wheeler, lighter and smaller than the 4-wheelers and easy to transport in someone’s car when I go out. I wrote a little ditty for it: ‘To my trusty friend: Dear friend, you are such a comfort to me. Whether I am weak or strong, blue or happy, you are there to support me. I know I can always lean on you no matter what. You will never let me down. Thanks good friend, my handy 3-wheel walker!’ ”

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