GONZALES — Even after his recent death, swamp pop musician and polio survivor Clif Nickens continues to inspire author Mark LaCour to live life with a positive attitude.
Stricken with polio as a young child, Nickens refused to allow the disease to darken his life and, instead, brought joy to others through his music and kind gestures.
LaCour said he wants the world, especially young people, to know how Nickens endured hardships with a smile on his face.
“It’s a great message right here in our community,” LaCour said. “We had someone who was unselfish and giving.”
LaCour hopes Nickens’ life story will inspire others through a self-published book called “How Clif Nickens Beat Polio!”
Sale proceeds from the $30 book will cover the costs of immunizing 12 children against polio, said LaCour, a long-time member of the Gonzales Rotary Club and owner of Wright’s Furniture in Gonzales.
Polio is an infectious viral disease that can result in permanent muscle atrophy, paralysis and even the inability to breathe on one’s own. The disease terrified parents throughout the 20th century until a vaccine was developed in the 1950s.
In 1985, volunteer organization Rotary International developed its PolioPlus program with a mission of eradicating polio worldwide. The program has helped nearly eliminate the disease with only about 400 cases in Third World countries today, down from 350,000 worldwide cases in 1985, LaCour said.
“We now have the opportunity to rid the Earth of this one menace,” LaCour said, speaking of the potentially-fatal disease.
LaCour, 66, graduated with Nickens from Gonzales High School in 1966, he said.
LaCour remembers Nickens as a prankster, although they were not especially close then.
“We never thought of him as being disabled,” LaCour said of Nickens. “He never thought of himself as disabled. But he was.”
Nickens contracted polio at 11 months old and had to wear leg braces the rest of his life and use crutches to walk.
Later in life, Nickens developed post-polio syndrome, a condition where the polio virus attacked his muscles and caused him constant pain.
Nickens also needed rotator cuff surgery to mend the overused tendons in his shoulders but declined the procedure because it would leave him totally helpless while he recovered, LaCour said.
“Yet, he never gave up,” LaCour said.
Having learned to tinker with machines, repair cars and play instruments from his father, Nickens eventually started a one-man, swamp pop band after a career in construction.
He played for nursing homes, senior centers and festivals but never accepted payment, LaCour said.
LaCour ran into Nickens again when the Galvez native returned to the area after living in Lake Charles for many years.
In 2009, LaCour, then president of the Gonzales Rotary Club, asked Nickens to speak to the organization about his personal experience with polio.
The pair’s relationship developed and LaCour would often watch Nickens perform at local bars.
LaCour decided he wanted to help Nickens write his autobiography and Nickens was enthusiastic about the project.
But, over the years, life got in the way and Nickens attended few of the planned book meetings, LaCour said.
He never turned in any writings LaCour asked him to put together and even claimed he destroyed a manuscript in a fit of frustration one day.
“I never got a page,” LaCour said.
Random acts of kindness
Despite the pain LaCour knew Nickens experienced, LaCour observed Nickens’ kindness to strangers and friends alike.
From handing out tips to the entire staff at a local restaurant, to giving people money for doctor’s appointments or remembering a person’s favorite song, Nickens always thought of others.
It bewildered LaCour but he strove to imitate Nickens whenever possible.
“How did he have this spirit of making others feel special when he had atrophied legs that were becoming more and more of a detriment?” LaCour said.
In honor of Nickens, LaCour once paid for a young couple’s breakfast at a local restaurant one morning.
The couple, who seemed to be deep in conversation, found out LaCour had paid their bill and the young man told LaCour they had been discussing whether anyone really cared anymore.
“I did that through Clif’s eyes,” LaCour said. “Clif answered the question, ‘Does anyone care anymore?’ ”
LaCour said he empathized with Nickens, often imagining what life would be like for him or his grandchildren if they contracted polio.
All Nickens wanted was to be appreciated, LaCour said. In fact, Nickens kept a box of memories full of cards and letters people had sent him thanking him for the acts of kindness he performed.
‘Life hard to live’
Nickens, 68, died in his sleep, most likely of a heart attack, on Oct. 4 without an autobiography ever coming to fruition, LaCour said.
He asked Nickens’ daughter, Monica Nickens, to check her father’s bedside for any writings and Monica found a tablet with just a few words written on it: “Life hard to live.”
Those words were a “dagger” for LaCour, he said, but he knew he had to continue their five-year project.
LaCour spoke at Nickens’ funeral and asked friends and family to help finish the story of Nickens’ life.
The book became a collection of stories about Nickens from the people who mattered most to him.
About two months later, LaCour had a published book with recollections of Nickens’ life complete with color photos.
“A lot of people just know daddy as a musician,” Monica Nickens said. “This gives them another outlook of him as a family man and as a friend.”
LaCour, who had never written a book before, said he learned a valuable lesson from his experience.
“Don’t limit yourself,” LaCour said. “You can surprise yourself.”
To purchase a book, call Wright’s Furniture at (225) 644-7583.