EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is featured in the Spring 2024 edition of The Tartan magazine. Read more from The Tartan at alma.edu/tartan.

From opening convocation to commencement, Secrest Professor of Music Will Nichols has been front and center, leading the campus community and the Alma College Choirs through some of our favorite musical traditions for 41 years.

Nichols, 67, will retire this year after a long and distinguished career that saw incredible growth of the choir program, outreach to faraway nations, and untold numbers of happy alumni who say they are grateful to have been taught by a professor they affectionately call “Doc.”

“Anything great that has ever been done, it starts with one person and an idea. If that person has the tenacity and desire that is necessary, they find the people who have those same feelings and make it happen,” said Dave Zerbe, the Paul Cameron Russell Associate Professor of Music.

“That’s Will and the Alma College Choirs. You cannot overstate what he has meant to this institution for four decades. He has worked incredibly hard to build something that is truly both distinct and well-loved by so many people.”

  • Read more about the Alma College Choirs and how your students’ musical aspirations can reach new heights at Alma College.


Nichols, originally from East Lansing, Mich., came to Alma to lead the choir in 1983, at age 27. Among his predecessors in the role were Ernie Sullivan, who conducted the choir for 28 years and was called “Uncle Ernie” by his students. Those same students made a habit of returning to campus for Homecoming to perform with the incumbent choir.

The connection choir alumni had with Sullivan and the deep love they had for Alma College and the choir made a big impression on Nichols as he started out. It helped him appreciate how the choir could play an important part in the life of the Alma campus.

In keeping with tradition, the Homecoming concert still serves as a well-attended reunion every year. This past fall, 150 choir alumni returned to sing at Homecoming, and a performance of Handel’s masterpiece “Messiah” at the Heritage Center brought 25 choir alumni back to campus to spend the weekend singing with the Alma Choir and orchestra.

“It was never only about the music,” said Sheri Tulloch ’95, a choir alumni who has since gone onto lead the choir at Grand Ledge (Mich.) High School. “Most of us were not even music majors — we just loved to be together and perform. There was a lot of laughter and sharing and so much of that has to do with Doc. He did not want to change us. He wanted us to be a family.”

A great joy of Nichols’ career, he says, has been how Alma College — and the rhythms of the yearly choir calendar — became central to the life of his own family. All four of his children (Jennifer, Christian, Wilson and Elizabeth) attended Alma College and Wilson and Elizabeth sang in many choir concerts. Nichols’ wife, Pam, has traveled on tour with the choir for many years and is often the person with whom students share joys and worries. Pam Nichols is also the steady hand behind the Alma Choir Facebook page that shares choir news, schedules and birthday wishes with hundreds of choir alumni.


Nichols said he tries to run the choir in a way that creates a space for students to be themselves. When students have that freedom of expression, he believes, they are able to build relationships that have the potential to last a lifetime.

Brendan Lodge ’14 is one such student. In his time with the choir, Nichols recognized Lodge’s talent for singing, as well as his interest in arranging music. At one point, Nichols asked Lodge to arrange a popular song for the choir to sing together at Homecoming. A video of the performance ended up going viral on YouTube and gave Lodge the confidence he needed to continue arranging music.

“Doc was really instrumental for me in realizing this skill within myself and allowing me the opportunity to enhance it,” said Lodge, who now works as a high school choir instructor in Livermore, Calif. “It’s something I try to pass along to my own students today. I will be forever grateful for that.”

Nichols treats colleagues with a similar sense of dignity. Tony Patterson served as artist-in-residence at Alma College and the accompanist for the Alma College Choirs for 25 years. Patterson said that throughout his career, Nichols gave him the grace and power to do what was needed in certain situations, which is a rare quality for a choir director at any institution.

“When you’re in charge of a group, the buck stops with you. But he had a lot of trust in me, and in the students, and I really appreciate that,” Patterson said. “I think that shows up in our morale, which then shows up on the stage. The students and I were able to be ourselves, and we had a lot of fun doing so.”


In the early 1990s, at the request of then-President Alan Stone, touring domestically and internationally became one of the signature elements of the Alma College Choir experience. According to Nichols, choir tours offer two great benefits: the choir always improves through performing tour songs multiple times; and choir friendships become stronger from the experience of traveling together.

Touring also has an impact on student recruitment, showing high school students the exciting places they could go as members of the Alma Choir. Nichols, who used time on the tour bus to write to high school singers, believes he sent postcards from across the U.S. and Europe to thousands of prospective students.

The amount of road miles the choir has logged during Nichols’ tenure is almost impossible to count. It has toured the United States every year since 1991, going all over the Lower 48 states. It has visited Scotland on six separate occasions, essentially, every four years, since 1998. It has gone to Ireland, Italy, France and other European nations.

For many students, these trips are their first time leaving the United States and represent memories that last a lifetime.

“I was in the choir during the pandemic, so when we toured, we really spent a lot of time together. These memories have been some of the best I’ve had at Alma College,” said MiShaye Hearn, a senior student from Matteson, Ill. “I was able to see places in Scotland where my family came from, which I might not have been able to do otherwise. On a personal level, it’s meant the world to me.”

Nichols’ most memorable performances on the road include several at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and a show at Stillman College, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with Nichols’ friend and fellow choir director James Arthur Williams.


As he prepares to depart Alma College, Nichols says he still feels the same sense of enthusiasm as he did when he first started. Although he is ready to hand his conductor’s baton to whomever comes next in his position, he continues to be amazed by the Alma Choir.

Nichols is grateful to a number of Alma College administrators, including Ron Kapp, Oscar Remick, Alan Stone and Jeff Abernathy, who have let him lead the choir “his way” through the years and supported it through periods of tumult, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

He is also grateful for the countless number of alumni and friends, as well as current and former colleagues, who have sent him messages or visited in-person to wish him a happy retirement.

“I am so appreciative of my opportunity to lead these choirs, and meet so many wonderful people,” he said. “I wish everybody the very, very best.”

Some years ago, Alma Choir supporters Thomas ’76 and Christine (Washburn) Kohn ’75 endowed a fund to support the choir program. The Kohns have asked that this endowment now be named in honor of Will Nichols so that his impact can continue to be recognized in the years to come. You have the opportunity to join others in supporting the Alma Choir program to honor Will Nichols. Visit our page on Community Funded to learn more.