Meet the man who has read to your kids for 30 years
ALLEGHENY CITY CENTRAL — On a pleasant September morning, a group of Pittsburgh King PreK-8 students sat together on the school’s enclosed patio to have a story read to them.
However, while storytime is an honored tradition of elementary school, this was a special occasion. Why? Because it was Mr. Mike reading to them.
With his loud voice, he made sure all the kids heard him. With his sweeping hand gestures, he brought the story to life. And with his many forms of audience participation, he kept the students’ attention for over an hour.
For the kids, it was a magical moment. For Mike Nichols, it was the latest storytime in a bit of public service he has performed for more than three decades. At this point, he’s a practiced hand at reading to young kids, with no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Nichols got his start reading for kids in the early 1990s, when he worked for Pittsburgh Public Works. He was working cleaning streets and, during his time off, decided to volunteer to read to elementary school kids.
“And I haven’t stopped ever since,” Nichols said.
Nichols reads to multiple schools not just in the Northside, but across the city. Some of the elementary schools he reads to include Allegheny, King, Morrow, Woolslair, Fulton, Westwood and more.
Nichols is not a native to the Northside — and in fact currently lives in Lawrenceville — but did live in the Mexican War Streets 16 years ago. His readings often bring him back to the neighborhood, and he feels a connection to the Northside even after moving away.
“In a way, I kind of stayed here,” he said. It isn’t just any books that Nichols reads to kids. His books often feature Black protagonists and Black people at the center of their stories. For example, one book titled “Abiyoyo” is based on a South African folk tale about a boy and his father confronting a giant after being exiled from their hometown.
Another book he’s frequently read is “Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles — Think of That!” is about famous Black tap dancer, singer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Nichols said his reason for focusing on Black stories is out of a desire for the various Black kids who attend Pittsburgh public schools to know their history, something he felt he missed out on when he was younger.
“Back in my day, we didn’t hear too much about Black stories unless you were down south,” he said.
For the kids in the audience, a Nichols storytime is not a passive listening affair. Nichols gets the kids involved, having them repeat lines, sing songs, wave their hands and more. Many of the kids excitedly clamor as they recognize books from previous visits by Nichols.
The staff of the schools certainly appreciate Nichols’ dedication. Pittsburgh King Principal Dawn Gordon had nothing but praise to say for the man.
“Mr. Mike’s dedication is truly remarkable,” she said. “The kids love it when he comes.”
Nichols’ volunteerism even earned him a Pittsburgh City Council proclamation in 2016. The council proclaimed July 12, 2016 to be Mike Nichols Day in honor of his readings, as well as for his service as a member of the Take a Father to School Day Planning Committee.
As to what keeps him coming back to read, Nichols feels he’s serving a higher mission. In 2012, he had a battle with prostate cancer, and he attributes his survival to intervention from God.
“I made a promise to God,” Nichols said. “When he removed my cancer, I made a promise. I would continue to do his work.”
Sadly, he shortly thereafter lost his son Robert to sickle cell anemia. Still, despite the tragedy, he feels dedicated to his mission.
“I’m still hanging in there,” he said. “God told me ‘Hang in there. I’ve got work for you to do.’” While he may have had his struggles, Nichols can always look forward to each Friday of the school year, when he can sit down in front of a crowd of smiling faces, open up a book and spark wonder and imagination in the minds of the children of Pittsburgh.