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2005 Distinguished Graduate Award


As an Airborne Ranger who served in Vietnam, a successful attorney and outstanding business leader, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, the United States Ambassador to the Holy See in Rome, and now the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, R. James Nicholson has led a life filled with over forty years´ worth of extraordinary achievements. President George Bush said of him: "When I think of Jim Nicholson, I think about one of the finest public servants I have ever known. I think about honor, decency and integrity." He has well and truly embodied the Academy´s ideals: "Duty, Honor, Country."

Raised in poverty on a tenant farm in Iowa, Jim Nicholson could not have had a more inauspicious beginning to his life. The third of seven children, he began working at age seven, and at age fifteen he became the sole provider for the family. Commissioned in the Infantry upon graduation from West Point, his early service included command of an Infantry company and assignment as senior advisor to a Vietnamese battalion in combat. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Infantryman´s Badge, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.

Returning to the United States, Jim Nicholson was assigned to West Point. In 1970 he left active duty, but served the next twenty-two years in the Army Reserve, retiring in 1991 with the rank of colonel. After earning a law degree from the University of Denver, Jim Nicholson joined a prestigious law firm and became a full partner in two years. In 1978, he left the practice of law and became a developer of master-planned residential communities, and in 1987, a builder of custom homes.

Despite the pressures of an expanding and successful business, Jim was deeply involved in a wide variety of non-profit and charitable activities. He was President of the West Point Society of Denver, founded the West Point Parents´ Club of Denver, and was instrumental in increasing the number of cadets appointed from Colorado. He chaired the Volunteers of America in Colorado; provided leadership to the Listen Foundation, which helped hearing-impaired children; chaired a Community Concerns Committee of the Denver Bar Association; became the primary spokesman for affordable housing in Denver; and established himself as one of Colorado´s outstanding leaders.

Elected a national committeeman from Colorado to the Republican National Committee (RNC) in 1986, Jim Nicholson became vice-chairman of the RNC in 1993, and four years later he was elected Chairman. Under his strong leadership, the Republican party began to rebound from the disastrous losses of 1996 and in the process, Jim Nicholson´s name became a byword for integrity and meticulous adherence to rules and ethics. In 2000, the Republican party won the Presidency, a majority in the Congress, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures – a feat not accomplished in nearly fifty years. During his four years as Chairman, the RNC also set all-time records for fund raising. While Chairman, Jim Nicholson co-chaired the International Institute for Democracies, a worldwide organization of national political parties, and his visits to many nascent democracies in Europe and Central America helped to solidify their commitment to a democratic form of government.

In 2001, President Bush appointed Jim Nicholson to be Ambassador to the Holy See in Rome. When he accepted the appointment, he stated that he wanted to become more involved in helping America become a moral leader as well as a temporal power. Guided by America´s foreign policy objective of enhancing human dignity, Ambassador Nicholson immediately grasped the importance and potential of a strong relationship between the United States and the Holy See. He obtained the support of the Holy See for U.S. efforts to fight terrorism; he orchestrated three visits by President Bush with Pope John Paul II, resulting in a close personal relationship between the two world leaders; and he was a strong voice in Europe for human dignity. Ambassador Nicholson convened an international conference on the trafficking of humans, highlighting the problems of 21st century slavery and human rights issues, and his zealous commitment to helping the hundreds of million undernourished and starving people in Africa and Asia has gained the support of the Holy See. At the conclusion of his tour as Ambassador, a senior diplomat said of Jim Nicholson, "No other man could have represented our Nation with such moral conviction; no other representative could have had as great an influence."

Throughout a lifetime of distinguished service, Jim Nicholson´s career has been one of selfless contributions and dedication to the ideals expressed in the West Point motto: "Duty, Honor, Country." His moral values, transparent integrity, and commitment to humanity set the highest possible standards of excellence. Accordingly, the Association of Graduates takes great pride in presenting the 2005 Distinguished Graduate Award to R. James Nicholson, USMA Class of 1961.

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