John F. McNichol, longtime Delco GOP leader

Posted: January 02, 2012

John F. McNichol, 75, a guiding force of the Delaware County Republican Party for four decades, died Saturday.

He had been on the rebound from surgery but fell ill on New Year's Eve while eating dinner with his wife, Joan Fenton McNichol, and friends, and died shortly afterward at Chester County Hospital, said Thomas Judge Sr., a former leader of the county GOP.

Mr. McNichol never held elected office, but presidents and senators sought his counsel.

"He was our leader," Judge said. "He was the man who made sure things were done right; he was a man of vision and integrity."

The longtime Upper Darby resident was born to politics. Mr. McNichol's grandfather was a state legislator, and Mr. McNichol began handing out campaign leaflets at age 9. By the time he was 12, he was campaigning for Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential election.

After Dewey lost to Harry S. Truman, "I thought we would never win again," Mr. McNichol told The Inquirer in 2009.

But he would see many victories in his time.

After Mr. McNichol's grandfather-in-law, GOP leader Sam Dickey, took him under his wing, Mr. McNichol helped engineer a rebirth of the county party in the mid-1970s.

He rewrote party bylaws; he got candidates elected. He was a statistics man, keen on political polling long before it became essential to elections. He was capable of predicting voter turnout with near-perfect accuracy, friends said.

Mr. McNichol's skill as a strategist was unparalleled, county GOP chairman Andy Reilly said.

"He had such a great intellect," Reilly said Sunday night. "He was a wonderfully engaging individual who had a great wit and great instincts about people."

As head of the Upper Darby Republican Party, and unofficial leader of the county operation, Mr. McNichol oversaw hundreds of committeepeople and block captains. He favored church deacons, coaches, and barbers for those jobs.

Barbers were ideal ground-level representatives for the party, Mr. McNichol told The Inquirer in 2009.

"He's got you in his chair every three weeks for an entire year, and he talks up the party," he said.

Even as the county changed, with fewer white voters and more Democrats, McNichol remained important in Southeastern Pennsylvania politics.

Just weeks ago, Reilly said, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) sought him out.

"We met with him and just talked about John's impressions about people and politics," Reilly said.

It wasn't the first time a big-name politician sought his counsel. When President Ronald Reagan wanted an introduction to Cardinal John Krol, he reached out to Mr. McNichol.

"Most of the governors and presidents and vice presidents in my tenure always consulted him," said Judge, who was a close friend.

Mr. McNichol played a major part in launching Patrick Meehan's first run at elected office, as Delaware County district attorney.

Meehan, now a congressman, said Sunday that he had long looked to Mr. McNichol for advice - and for his characteristic good humor, which often defused tense political situations.

"He was characterized by just a tremendous wit," Meehan said. "But it was coupled with remarkable political instincts and a genuine sense of public service."

Unlike some political operatives, Mr. McNichol wasn't always lobbying or pushing an agenda.

"He had a commonsense approach to what was important," Meehan said.

He was a family man, proud of his wife and five children and later, his grandchildren.

And he was a dedicated basketball and baseball coach, serving as a father figure to thousands of young people, writing letters to help them earn college scholarships.

He was a graduate of La Salle College High School and Villanova University, where he studied math.

Mr. McNichol worked as a systems analyst for RCA and as head of regional technology representatives for the Burroughs Corp. before working as director of Delaware County's data-processing department.

He is survived by his wife; sons Joseph, John, Michael, Paul, and Christopher; daughter Joan McNichol Dougherty; a brother, Thomas; 14 grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Funeral arrangements were not yet final.


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