Throughout her 90 years, Nancy Nickerson built a network of friends, appreciative customers and loyal staff at the place where she could always be found since owning D&R Depot in Le Roy.
Words such as sweet, welcoming, intelligent, and inspirational seem to flow easily from those who describe her. However, her steadfast spirit may best be defined by how she reacted after a minor stroke in February. Not only did the nonagenarian come back from that, but she actually rebounded mightily, son Jay says.
“She took exercise class and she would do extra reps of the exercise. She kept getting stronger,” he said during an interview Friday. “I’m still working on wrapping my head around … she began to work in that restaurant two years older than I am. I’m taking that as I can still figure out what I want to be when I grow up, I can start a whole new career.”
He and others marvel at the tenacity of Nancy Nickerson, who died Aug. 16, five days after having a massive stroke. Jay tends to believe that she died “getting ready to go to work,” and her body, strengthened from that exercise, kept going awhile longer. Long enough, in fact, to give family and friends time to see her and gain some closure, he said.
It wasn’t easy to talk about his mom without tears, another testament to the impact she made on people. Her countless customers and partners, Sean Valdes and his wife and head chef Jennifer, and restaurant staff will carry on at the restaurant, he said. But there will be a palpable shift.
“I think it’s just going to lose a little,” he said, pausing to find the right word. “Je ne sais quoi.”
A quality that cannot be described or named easily seems to fit Nancy well, as those who tried to describe her captured her essence more than nailing down adjectives. For example, her greatest skill, Jay said, was in finding the right people for the job. He named Sean Valdes as one of them; someone who began as a dishwasher at the restaurant and worked his way up.
Sean was just 14, and has worked with Nancy for 30 years, becoming a part owner for the last 20. As time marched on, he grew to admire this woman who — at 60 years old — decided to go into the restaurant business with husband Don. They revamped the entire place, installed a commercial kitchen, and “she was here literally every day,” Valdes said.
“Seven days a week she was here to greet you and visit each table, and chit-chat,” he said. “She loved her customers, she loved the industry. It wasn’t a job, it was her calling.”
Nancy had prior experience, having worked at Red Osier for 24 years. Don died in 2000, and she kept forging ahead, and “genuinely loved everyone who walked through the front door,” Valdes said. Not that they were always agreeable about every facet of the business, he said — Valdes was about profit margins and Nancy was about pleasing customers. Her focus on patrons as the bottom line served Nancy well, as did her concern for the community and charity. She began a Community Mondays program that donated a portion of one’s bill to a favorite charity each Monday during a three-month period, and that's just one of her many efforts.
If she was at the end of a 16-hour shift and someone needed ketchup, Nancy would be the one to go and get some from the kitchen, Valdes said. She was a believer in the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats,” versus each man for himself.
“There’s something about Nancy’s drive, intelligence and commitment to customers,” Valdes said. “It will not be the same.”
In the vein of, "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," the restaurant itself will continue on status quo, he said. There will be no changes to the menu, hours or staff, as all of those things have worked well, he said. Patti Rubino is part of the serving staff, and she has been there for 21 years. Though strict at first and wanting things to run a certain way, Nancy was “a very good boss,” Rubino said. And she will be missed.
“She loved everybody, and she will be remembered,” Rubino said, listing some of the things that her beloved boss would do: handing out wooden nickels when the train came by for a free dessert at the next visit; creating potpies that were personally served tableside and initiating the onion soup with scissors. (The scissors were to cut through the thick melted layer of cheese.)
Nancy was also known as an avid gardener, often out in the restaurant yard deadheading her prized roses. She was actually more than a boss to Rubino, and a pretty special restaurateur as well, given the response when she died. More than 3,000 people posted comments online and sent flowers and sympathy cards and made donations in her name. Some online comments included “I am so sorry for everyone’s loss. She was a wonderful person who always made you feel welcome,” “Sweetheart of a woman and she will be greatly missed,” and “Such a nice lady with a beautiful personality and smile. May she RIP.”
“She was family,” Rubino said. “She was always there to help somebody out.”
Keeping busy at her livelihood, plus immersing herself in books may have been why Nancy retained a great memory for most of her life. She and her husband would take their kids on excursions that surpassed the typical, such as going to Florida and including museums, botanical gardens and other sites with a trip to Disney World. There were always a lot of experiences like that, Jay said. He credits the restaurant for keeping her sharp and her independent nature for helping to define his own character.
Jay, whose siblings include Judy, Jon, Jeff, Jim and David, was proud to note that out of that entire two dozen years at Red Osier — going from waitress to office manager — his mom only took one sick day, and earned a reputation for a terrific work ethic. Whether or not she had aches or pains, you never heard her complain about anything, he said. She was a true optimist and someone with intrinsic gifts who ended up knowing a lot of people. He would often say to strangers he’d just met, I bet there’s a 50 percent chance that you know my mother. And they usually would.
“Nancy had a way of making you feel welcome. I don’t know how she did that,” he said. “I was always impressed with how she could talk with anybody.”
A Celebration of Life will be held at the D & R Depot from 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday. All who knew her are invited. In lieu of flowers, the family requests you make memorials to the Jell-O Museum, 23 East Main St., LeRoy, NY, 14482, or the Woodward Memorial Library at 7 Wolcott St., LeRoy, NY, 14482.
Top File Photo of Nancy Nickerson, right, with Sean and Jennifer Valdes at the D&R Depot restaurant; Nancy and Sean promoting their New York-only wine offerings, both photos by Howard Owens. Photo of a birthday celebration for Nancy, submitted by Sean Valdes.