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Vonne Nicklaus Leaves Behind “Tremendous”Impact on Yuma

Saturday, members of Cabelleros de Yuma were ringing bells for the Kettle Drive in the annual holiday-season fund-raising campaign for The Salvation Army.

No doubt Vonne Nicklaus would have been pleased.

A member of the Cabelleros himself, he had recruited his fellow members to assist with the Kettle Drive over the years to help the charity.

“What a fitting tribute that they were ringing the bells on the day of Vonne’s funeral,” observed Bill Gresser as he was leaving Saturday morning’s service for Nicklaus, who died Dec. 8.

“Vonne was very active in and a great supporter for The Salvation Army,” Gresser explained. “He kept the Cabelleors involved in ringing bells.”

In so many other ways, Nicklaus contributed to Yuma as a civil engineer, a businessman, active member of the community and family man.

“He certainly leaves a tremendous legacy,” Gresser said.

Nickalus was born on Aug. 3, 1940, in Hutchison, Kan. After graduating from Kansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he served four years in the U.S. Navy. During his tour in Vietnam, he was the resident officer in charge of construction.

He served as a construction project manager for 11 years in Yuma, then founded Nicklaus Engineering in 1977. His company has been involved in a multitude of civil engineering projects in Yuma, among them a number of parks and schools. Today, the company is a multi-million dollar corporation with professional and technical personnel in the divisions of architecture, civil engineering, environmental engineering, geotechnical engineering and surveying.

But perhaps the legacy he would be most proud of is the impact he had on those who worked for him and the successes they’ve enjoyed.

Stacy Gutierrez, an environmental engineer, started working for Nicklaus in 1996 straight out of college. At the time, the company hadn’t done environmental engineering, she recalled, “but he took a chance on me to develop a whole new side to the business. He definitely gave me a start in my career. He was wonderful to work for and very knowledgeable … a great mentor.”

Marisol Canales went to work for Nicklaus in 1997, one year after earning her civil engineering degree, “because he did stuff I was most interested in.”

She, too, credits Nicklaus with giving her a start in her career.

“He expected a lot but he also got a lot,” she said. “He had a huge heart. He treated his employees like his own kids. He wanted the best for us. He would celebrate all our accomplishments.”

Both agree that Nicklaus’ most lasting legacy is the people he mentored.

Today, Gutierrez and Canales own the company Nicklaus founded, now known as NEI.

Many other employees went on to start their own successful businesses, including Douglas Nicholls, owner of Core Engineering and mayor-elect of the city of Yuma. Joshua Scott is the current city engineer and Gladys Wiggins was recently selected as the director of Yuma International Airport.

Nicklaus’ mentoring of his employees wasn’t restricted to work, though.

“He also taught us how to give back to the community,” Gutierrez said. “He would cook turkeys every year for The Salvation Army, he was in Cabelleros and Rotary. He always gave back.”

In fact the list of organizations Nicklaus was involved is a very long one. He served on the boards of Yuma Regional Medical Center Operating Board, Arizona Society of Professional Engineers, Yuma County Chamber of Commerce and Salvation Army Advisory Board. As a member of the Yuma Rotary Club, he hosted three exchange students.

He partially donated his services for the design of the Winsor Rotary and Friendship Park. A strong believer in education, he was instrumental in bringing Northern Arizona University to the Arizona Western College campus, was involved in the AWC Career Exploration Fair to promote engineering as a career option and served as a mentor at Cibola High School.

Nicklaus also contributed his services to the Habitat for Humanity, designing “The Village,” a 20-lot subdivision for single-family homes.

He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Karen; son, Kirk; daughter, Kristy (Ricci) Arviso; stepson, Donny Tunnell; sisters, Nathalie Lee and Beth Donahue; four grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and several nieces and nephews.