A charity pioneer who helped generate hundreds of thousands of pounds for St Catherine’s Hospice by ‘putting fun into fundraising’ has died in the hospice which he worked tirelessly for over the course of two decades.
John Nickson, known affectionately by many in Central Lancashire as ‘Mr Hospice’, battled a rare condition called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a cancer affecting the bone marrow.
He died at St Catherine’s Hospice in Lostock Hall – the charity where he worked between 1990 and 2010 - on September 23, aged 69. His funeral will be held at St Teresa’s Church in Penwortham on Wednesday October 4 at 11am.
His wife Maureen said: “John was wonderfully vibrant, larger than life – he may only have been 5ft 6in, but he was a giant of a man who made a huge impression on everyone he met.
“He was loving, caring and generous - a warm, funny man who, as a true orator, loved entertaining with his stories and anecdotes.
“John is going to leave an enormous hole in my life and our family’s lives, and be missed by so many who knew him.”
John, who lived in Longton, joined St Catherine’s five years after it opened at a pivotal time in its history.
Stephen Greenhalgh, the current Chief Executive of the hospice, explained: “If ever the phrase ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ was appropriate for St Catherine’s, it was when John Nickson walked through the hospice doors 27 years ago.
“He came at a critical moment for the charity when its value had just begun to be understood and appreciated by local people and, as such, expectation was growing rapidly.
“John was wonderfully creative and captured the imagination of local people in such an inspiring and engaging way. He was admired and cherished by staff and volunteers throughout the organisation and by the tens of thousands of people he inspired to become supporters of our work.
“St Catherine’s is truly indebted to him for his remarkable work.”
Cliff Hughes, Chairman of the Board of Trustees – who appointed John – said the charity had a lot to thank John for today.
“As the old adage goes, from small acorns mighty oaks grow – and this is what John helped St Catherine’s to do.
“He helped us to keep momentum after the excitement of launching the hospice and put initiatives in place which gave the charity more reliable and stable sources of income. Crucially, he got people to believe in what we were doing which was so important.”
John had been inspired to move to the charity sector from a career in retail – including owning two bike shops in Preston – following the experiences of his mum June. She had battled cancer when John was in his forties and he experienced first-hand the impact such conditions had on not only those who were ill, but also their carers' and families.
Maureen, who also worked at the hospice - initially as a fundraiser and then later in charge of the charity’s shops – said: “That experience made him reassess his life and the direction in which it was going.
“He decided he wanted to do something which would help others going through similar situations to those his family had faced. His mum and their experiences continued to motivate and inspire him over the course of his time at St Catherine’s. He often said they were the best 20 years of his life.”
Recalling the early 1990s and in particular the Guild Year of 1992, Maureen added: “They really were exciting times. John was always full of ideas and a bit of a risk taker – you had to be. We organised event after event and it was a wonderful experience.”
One of John’s most important legacies, which continues to make a vital contribution to the charity’s fundraising efforts today, was the launch of St Catherine’s Hospice Lottery in 1993.
It was the first UK hospice lottery and has since been replicated boy others across the country, providing regular, sustainable income.
Sheila Kennard, Head of Lottery and Promotions at St Catherine’s, has happy memories of John taking on all kinds of weird and wonderful stunts and challenges to attract publicity and raise funds.
She said: “One of my favourite memories of John is the sight of him coming out of the hospice at our first Yellow Day event wearing full wet suit, snorkel and flippers – ready to climb into a bath of custard for the day!”
Maureen also remembers a sponsored pram race which saw John dress up as a baby and another bath tub – this time filled with baked beans - all to raise funds.
She added: “The local newspapers were the main platform for us to let people know about the hospice and John was always trying to think about the best way of getting St Catherine’s to stand out from the crowd. The photographers always knew when they came to see us that there’d be something different.”
Another important event which launched during John’s time at the fundraising helm was the Symphony at the Tower classical concert and fireworks. After a trial run at Avenham Park in 1994, the event launched at Hoghton Tower in 1995 and was hugely successful.
“It just grew and grew,” Maureen said. “Again, it was a risk but it paid off, and became one of the most high profile hospice fundraising events in the country.”
Bernadette Baxter, who has been a nurse at St Catherine’s Hospice since the day it opened in 1985, has fond memories of John dressed in his tuxedo and wellies at the Symphony.
“He certainly looked the part!” she said.
“He always worried about the weather but it didn’t matter – everyone had a great time even if it was raining.”
Bernadette said John’s passion for hospice care was always evident – whether he was standing in a muddy field or calling round to see them on the in-patient unit.
“He was always so committed to the hospice – he had such empathy for it and understanding of it,” she said.
“The organisation is a jig-saw puzzle with lots of different pieces that fit together – but he understood that good care came at the centre of it all. He knew that without it, we’d be no-where.
“He was a generous-hearted and extremely kind, caring man.”
They’re comments echoed by former volunteer Kevin Jones. He said: “He was so bubbly and outgoing, everyone knew him – he was very popular in the local area, extremely well-connected and had a great rapport with local people.”
Russell Atkinson, a former hospice trustee who chaired the income generation committee, added: “No matter how big the financial targets were each year John never flinched - he just got on with it with his usual 'can-do' attitude.
“In my view, John's work is unsurpassed - he is quite simply without peer."
Work aside, John was passionate about amateur dramatics, a keen cyclist and a singer in a sixties band called Just Live. Unsurprisingly, he used his many talents to support St Catherine’s outside of his official fundraising role.
In 1990 he formed the Charity Players – an am dram group that continued to put on performances to raise hospice funds until 2013. Over the years the group organised 38 productions and raised more than £150,000.
And in 1995 he joined with a friend, photographer Phil Garlington, to complete a charity cycle ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats on a tandem bike.
Maureen explained: “John had injured his left knee and Phil his right – so they decided doing it together on a tandem was the best way forward!
“That’s just one of many funny stories I could tell about him. He always used to say his job was to put the fun in fundraising – he wanted to make it as exciting and enjoyable as possible for people to raise money and awareness of such an important cause.
“It was important to him that local people knew the hospice belonged to them – yes he was fantastic at his job and had a great team behind him at St Catherine’s, but none of it was possible without the people who gave so generously and enthusiastically to support such a wonderful charity.”