It’s fitting that Tony Nicholas shares his name with Saint Nicholas, the ancient, gift-giving bishop whom the folk character Santa Claus is based on. After 42 years in community service work, and over 60 years if you count his activism as a child and teenager, Tony is as close to a present-day Saint Nick as one might find. Lucky for us, he spreads his goodwill here in Mid-City as Director of the Tom Bradley Family Source Center on Pico Boulevard.
Shadowing Tony for just one hour at the center gives you a good idea as to why the community holds him in high esteem. Children pop into his office and ask for help with writing or multiplication homework, co-workers share jokes while scheduling the next day’s activities, and new faces are greeted with handshakes and smiles. People who come and go may be struggling, but at the center there’s a genuine sense of safety and peace.
After 14 years as director, Tony feels that the firestation-turned-community-center runs like a well-oiled machine. Staff members Andrea Solomon and Eddie Munoz help organize all programming and volunteers, and their most popular offerings include free after-school tutoring, affordable ESL classes and computer courses, and tax help. There’s also a bi-monthly vegan food giveaway that aids approximately 400 local households per event, thanks to donations made by Simpson’s co-creator and local philanthropist Sam Simon. Tony has also watched the community grow into a diverse neighborhood in the past years: “I’m really pleased at seeing different races coming together,” he said. “When you have diversity, as opposed to one group completely dominating, it’s great.”
Tony loves his job and is proud of the center’s contributions, but of course there are challenges, as there are in every business. “I don’t have enough space or staff to do all that I want to do. I wish I could feed 10,000 families. I wish could hold classes for hundreds of students. That’s the frustrating part. That’s the part of the job that hurts the most. But there are good days, too.”
If you ask Tony how he came to work in community service, he’ll tell you his path was well-paved by his father, mother, and stepfather. His father Fayard Nicholas, brother to Harold Nicholas and Dorothy Dandridge, was a renowned dancer and actor who’s success on the stage allowed the family a stable financial income and gave Tony the opportunity to travel abroad at a young age. Tony’s mother, Geraldine Nicholas Branton, was a passionate political activist; she married Civil Rights attorney Leo Branton, Jr.(Read TNN profile on our website in Featured Residents). Even as a tiny baby, Tony’s mother involved him in her activism. “Before I was born my mother wanted to buy a house on the Westside [of LA], but there was a covenant that said African Americans – called Negroes back then – could not buy west of Arlington. She was infuriated, so she looked for a house on Arlington. She ended up going one street east to Van Ness and bought a house with all cash. Then she immediately went down to City Hall and started picketing, and I was with her in a baby buggy. I was six months old. She held a sign that said “L.A. is unfair to Negroes.”
From then on, Tony’s political involvement never ceased. At the age of eleven he joined his mother and stepfather on Adlai Stevenson II’s presidential campaign, and the spirit at headquarters inspired him. “I saw the excitement, I saw the enthusiasm, and I thought, ‘This is great, I love this.’ We’d go out and get food and clothing for families in Mississippi. I had a chance to go down South, and I started seeing the conditions and how people were suffering. It really touched me; I wasn’t subjected to the racism or the poverty. I’ve been involved ever since, and I still have a passion for it.”
Tony continued his activism well past his teenage years. In 1984 he acted as statewide coordinator for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, and in 1987 he spearheaded a national movement to fight against federal cuts that would wipe out community programs; he helped lead a march on the Federal Building with over 5,000 participants and organized a convention in Los Angeles with speakers like Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson. “The theme was ‘Congress: Don’t Break Our Hearts,’” Tony shared. “And it worked. They didn’t cut the funds. I got telegrams from all over the country and they brought me down to City Hall. Tom Bradley presented a plaque to me that reads ‘Committed to Save Human Services.’ That was quite an honor.” Tony worked at a veteran’s council center for eight years before Councilman Nate Holden asked him to be director at a new community center in Mid-City.
“I’m 68 years old but I come to work every day with a smile and I leave every day with a smile,” Tony said. “Not too many people go to work and like what they do. These children have touched me, and I love helping the community. It is something that I’m so very lucky to have. I wish I could do it forever, but I can’t obviously.”
Tony is planning to retire this year, but he’s not completely set on it. “I’ve heard some things that I’m troubled about. There will probably be some cutbacks in funding that will affect this center. I may consider staying. I’m not one to run away from a fight.”