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Obituary: Dr. Dennis Harold Nicholson

Longtime PVHMC Sleep Center doctor, larger than life husband and father, lifelong learner

Dr. Dennis Harold Nicholson, cherished husband, father, and friend, died peacefully on August 13 at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center, just four days shy of his 80th birthday.

His family is grateful for the exceptional care Dr. Nicholson received from the physicians, nurses, and staff at PVHMC as well as from specialists at Scripps Memorial Hospital and the City of Hope.

He is survived by his wife of 36 years, Beverly Sue Nicholson; daughters, Ellise Rachel Nicholson, Sandra Abbi Nicholson, and Laurel Marie Brandstetter; stepchildren Shani Suzanne Delamor, Julie Christine Tontini, and Travis Ryan Castaldi; son-in-law Richard Clifton Smith; grandchildren Jackson Morris Castaldi, Xander Jeter Delamor, and Starling Rose Marguerite Smith; and brothers Robert Edward Nicholson and Frederic Alex Nicholson and their families.

Dr. Dennis Harold Nicholson has died at age 79.

Born in Brooklyn, New York on August 17, 1942 to Beatrice Nicholson (née Goldstein) and Irving Nicholson, Dennis was the child of second generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He was the oldest of four children, twin brothers Bobby and Freddy, and sister Marti Valeron (née Glass, b. 1955 d. 2001) whom he loved dearly and whose early death pained him greatly.

His mother graduated from Hunter College and his father graduated from New York University and was a writer in the WPA Writer’s Project. After his father died of a heart attack when he was 12, he vowed to become a doctor to better understand what happened and to help others.

A lover of learning, he began his higher education at Brooklyn College. There he met his lifelong friend, Sam Goodman. Not long after graduating, he met and married his first wife, Judith Kay Nicholson. He and Judy moved to Japan when he was conscripted into the army during the war in Vietnam. He worked as an anesthesiologist at Kishine Barracks in Yokohama, Japan, where injured U.S. soldiers were airlifted for treatment. His first daughter, Ellise Rachel, was born there in 1969.

After finishing his military duty, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he earned his M.D. degree and completed his residency at Case Western Reserve. He was chief resident at Case Western in 1975. He had two more daughters during his time in Cleveland, Sandra Abbi (b. 1971) and Laurel Marie (b. 1976 to Carol Brandstetter).

In 1976, he moved to California to work at PVHMC, where he quickly excelled and dedicated the next 47 years of his career. He often said that what he loved most about working at PVHMC was that the hospital was dedicated to community service for all, regardless of financial status.

In 1981, he became the critical care director, a role he held for 22 years. In the late 1980s, he was instrumental in developing PVHMC’s Sleep Center, where he worked in conjunction with technical director Trish Stiger right up until his death. He received his board certification from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in 1989. His most recent recertification was in 2017 at age 74. He served as director of the sleep center from its inception in 1987 until July 2021 and traveled the country as a site visitor for the American Academy of Sleep medicine for seven years. He was adept with technology and spent hundreds of hours creating a database management system for the hospital.

In his early 40s, after he and Judy divorced, he dated and soon married Sue Nicholson. The couple merged families and he was quick to embrace her three children, whom he loved dearly. He cherished his relationship with his son-in-law, Greg Tontini (d. 2020), and adored his three grandchildren.

Dennis and Sue spent the rest of his life as soulmates in a loving, happy marriage. “He is my best friend,” Sue often said. He loved her artistry, the beautiful home she kept, the soft sweaters, robes, and towels she’d set out for him, and her cooking skills. He raved about her chicken soup and cioppino, for example, and the way she’d thinly slice and arrange fruit so as to make it extra appealing and delicious.

In his work life, what he valued most were his peers and his patients. As a colleague he was, above all, a collaborator who eschewed competition. He relished working with new medical residents and helping others advance their careers. And he was so dedicated to taking the time to listen to and care for his patients that he was sometimes chided by staff for falling behind in his schedule; he absolutely refused to compromise on individual patient care. His love for his patients is why he continued to see them, even after resigning as director, up until two weeks before he died.

“Dennis’ dedication to his patients was outshined only by his great humility, and, perhaps, his spacey-ness,” his family shared. They teased that he saved his brainpower for lofty pursuits and laughed at the things he failed to notice. Like the times he showed up to work in two different shoes or once, in a tuxedo he mistook for a regular suit. “This changed for the better after he met Sue, who bumped up his sartorial style and did much of the day-to-day thinking for him.”

He had a vast love of reading; he read medical journals daily and enjoyed The New York Times and books about history. He appreciated a good argument. His children loved nothing more than sitting around the breakfast table with him, reading the Sunday Times and debating politics and philosophy while “cooperatively overlapping” over bagels and cream cheese.

He loved watching “Morning Joe” with his wife or sitting outside with her drinking coffee and admiring the sunrise. He was not religious, but more a “stomach Jew” who was known to drive all the way to Pasadena for good Chinese food or Palm Springs for a pastrami sandwich from Sherman’s. He also loved eclairs, New York’s famed chocolate phosphates and, especially, all things cheese.

He loved learning from the younger generations. When his daughter Ellise came out as gay, he listened and grew. In 2015, he proudly walked her down the aisle to Cindi Lauper’s LGBTQ+ anthem, “True Colors.” He told his children to be true to themselves, always, and was immensely proud of his stepchildren, grandchildren, and three daughters.

He loved watching and discussing sports (the Dodgers, Lakers, and New York Giants were his teams) and playing them, too. To his family’s chagrin, his athletic attempts often resulted in injury, most of which happened on the sidelines, such as the time he slipped in the hot tub at the bed-and-breakfast before a family whitewater rafting adventure or the time he fell in the parking lot of the ski resort and broke his hand.

Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were some of his favorite movie makers. He regularly quoted their lines: “No fruit cup” (“High Anxiety”), “It’s good to be the king” (“History of the World, Part I”), “My brain? It’s my second favorite organ!” (“Sleeper”). He was often found cuddled on the couch with his wife, watching movies and talking. He loved nothing more than a good pun. He was an avid lover of classical music, especially Mozart and Mendelsohn.

“But above all, Dennis was generous beyond measure. We shared him with his friends, patients, and colleagues, about whom he cared deeply,” his family said. “He was ever grateful for his full and beautiful life. His personality was large, so much so that his stepchildren called him ‘Big-D’ though he was, physically, on the smaller side. It’s hard to imagine life without him. Thankfully, he will live on, big time, in our hearts.”

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in his name to PVHMC Sleep Disorders Center, either online at https://www.pvhmc.org/giving-support/donate-to-pvhmc/, by check to 1798 N. Garey Ave., Pomona CA 91768, Attn: Foundation 3rd floor OPP, or by phone at (909) 865-9139. Please specify in the comments section (if donating online) or memo (if paying by check) that the donation is for the sleep center.

A celebration of Dr. Nicholson’s life will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, October 1 at the Claremont Colleges’ Garrison Theater, 241 E. 10th Street, Claremont 91711. His family chose a large-capacity venue in hopes of reducing COVID-19 transmission risk. Masks are encouraged.

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