Visiting presidential graves is James Nicol’s hobby

Living Well | Gary Tippet | Posted on 22 May 2017

RACV member James Nicol's unusal passion led him on a transcontinental odyssey that included a 24,000-kilometre road trip.

Collecting dead presidents: in American vernacular, that usually means amass­ing money, the bills of which feature former leaders – from one-dollar Washingtons and five-buck Lincolns through to $100,000 Woodrow Wilsons.

But James Nicol has added a less avaricious twist. He’s completed a cross-continental odyssey collecting every expired US leader – or at least their resting place.

What began with an accident mutated into an obsession for the retired solicitor and former mayor of Warrnambool, one that has seen him criss-crossing all but four of the 48 contiguous United States in search of passed POTUSes.

Last year he completed his collection on a 24,805-kilometre road trip – an eight-week quest from west to east and back again.

It all started on a visit to the US in 2010, when James found himself in the small city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Dipping into the internet for something to see there, he discovered Wheatland, the home and estate of the 15th president, James Buchanan.

You could probably visit every president’s grave if you set your mind to it.

“I realised I’d never heard of James Buchanan, nor many of the other presidents, and I thought I should really find out who they all were,” James recalls. He began researching and arrived at what he thought was the logical next step: “For some reason I thought, ‘You could probably visit every president’s grave if you set your mind to it’.”

And he did. On that first trip in 2010 he had visited Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and paid respect at the grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A year later, he went to the resting places of Richard Nixon at Yorba Linda, California, and Lyndon Johnson in Stonewall, Texas.

Man with Melbourne skyline in the background

James at his inner-Melbourne home.

But the culmination was his minutely planned 2015 Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (Thus Passes The Glory Of The World) tour, touching base with the remaining 34 dead commanders-in-chief.

James admits to being something of an obsessive-compulsive personality and says he raised a few eyebrows over his mission, including those of friend Stuart Potter, who did the driving on his last two visits. “Poor Stu, he has no interest in presidential graves or American history, but he said, ‘Just give me the address, I’ll put it in the GPS and I’ll get you there’. And he did, over 15,413 miles.”

The first three weeks of their progress, north from Los Angeles and then east, were pretty much non-presidential, although there were stops at Mount Rushmore and then Rapid City, South Dakota, where the CBD is scattered with statues of all the past presidents.

From there it turned serious: Gerald Ford at Grand Rapids, Michigan; Rutherford Hayes at Fremont, Ohio; William McKinley at Canton, Ohio; Millard Fillmore at Buffalo, NY; and Chester Arthur at Albany, NY.

It was now a president a day, soon two per day: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, resting with wife Eleanor in the rose garden at Hyde Park, NY, one morning, and Martin van Buren at Kinderhook, NY, that afternoon. Calvin Coolidge (Plymouth, VT) and Franklin Pierce (Concord, NH) received visits the next day, and a few days later father-and-son presidents John and John Quincy Adams, interred together at Quincy in Massachusetts.

And so it went, presidents getting thicker on – or in – the ground.

And so it went, presidents getting thicker on – or in – the ground. On one day James and Stu visited Woodrow Wilson at Washington’s National Cathedral, and Washington himself in Mt Vernon, Virginia. On another it was Grover Cleveland and Aaron Burr in the one cemetery in Princeton, New Jersey, and a return to James Buchanan in Lancaster, PA.

Buchanan, who preceded Abraham Lincoln, has been ranked as one of America’s worst presidents for his inability to deal with the secession that led to the Civil War. But James has sympathy for the man who sparked his obsession.

“Perhaps it’s because we share a couple of qualities,” he says. “We were both country lawyers and both bachelors.”