The passing of Laura Grace Stammers Nichols, who died suddenly early Friday morning at the age of 53, has left many in South Orange and Maplewood reeling.
Laura had become a familiar presence to many through her restaurant and catering business, Blue Plate Special on Irvington Avenue in South Orange; her community involvement, including serving on the Seton Village committee; through her three children and their school activities; by her frequent presence on Maplewoodonline, and from her outgoing, friendly nature and generous spirit.
Tributes have poured in on Maplewoodonline, Facebook, and other social media. Hundreds of people have donated to the Gofundme site set up by friends, raising an astonishing $27,000 in a few days — nearly double the original fundraising goal. (There is also a fundraising site to support her sister, Diedre Stammers Allaine, who tragically lost her husband and father of her four children just days before losing her sister.)
One friend posted on Laura’s Facebook page: “Laura was always helping everyone..one of the kindest, generous souls I have ever met…a most wonderful mother who fiercely loved her children…but she was a sassy funny broad and I will always admire her spirit.”
Friends and family will remember her at a wake tonight, April 7 from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. and Wednesday, April 8 from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. at Preston Funeral Home, 153 South Orange Avenue, South Orange, NJ.
The funeral will be Thursday, April 9 at 11:00 a.m. at Morrow Memorial Church, 600 Ridgewood Avenue, Maplewood, NJ. A post-funeral repast will be held at Les Saisons bed and breakfast in Maplewood, hosted by Art and Libby Christensen, with food provided by Bunnys, Village Trattoria, Park Wood Diner and Cedar Ridge Cafe & Bakery.
Family has requested that attendees to the wake and funeral wear colors instead of black, as a nod to Laura’s zest for life.
Her husband, Tommy Nichols (the two were separated but remained very close) said on Friday that on the night she died, Laura was “laughing and talking” with her family.
“She was such a great support to her sister in the last couple of days,” Nichols said.
He said as was her wont, Laura was “pushing herself” with work and had worked two bar mitzvahs the previous weekend. “Her business was very sought after,” said Tommy. “She was a force of nature.”
Tommy said that he, his and Laura’s three children — Kaitlin, 24; Max, who had turned 22 the day before his mother died; and Harry, 20 — as well as Laura’s life and business partner, Dan Pupke, were “devastated.”
It is clear that they are not the only ones. Two people who knew Laura personally as well as professionally talked about what made her special.
Wine educator Hank Zona of The Grapes Unwrapped sometimes collaborated with Laura on events throughout the area. Although the two had crossed paths on Maplewoodonline, they never met in real life until one winter day some years ago.
“She announced [on MOL] she was going sledding in Memorial Park with a friend who was visiting…it was also after midnight. So I said I’d walk over to join them…and introduced myself and we sledded and we laughed about how we met many times after that,” Zona said.
Maplewoodonline was as much a community to Laura as the “non-virtual
community”, he said. “She knew things and remembered things about people in both realms, so a few years ago, March 2012, on a Sunday, I found myself home alone and decided to go have a late breakfast at the Blue Plate. It was busy and I sat at a small table by myself, the only table left in fact.”
Wayne Sullivan, then on the nominating committee for the Maplewood Democratic Committee, was also at BPS. “He and I jousted on MOL over local issues in the past…Laura asked me if it would be OK if Wayne sat with me since all the other tables were full. I said sure. She joked that maybe people would think he and I were meeting in South Orange to discuss my possibly tossing my hat in the ring.”
The two men had an enjoyable, non-political conversation about family and life, which they lightheartedly joked about on MOL later that night. Sure enough, Zona was approached in the next two days by two current TC members who asked if he was running (he wasn’t). He told Laura, who got a kick out of it.
“I was a fan of Laura’s…she was a fan of mine. We referred one another to people regularly. When I would ask her for suggestions on a hired hand I could use for an event where I might be too busy, she inevitably would say, ‘I’ll be there.'”
If she asked him for help, he would “drop what I was doing because I know Laura would have and had done the same for me.” For one special dinner she was catering, where the hosts were trying to impress important clients, Laura texted to ask for wine recommendations.
“The client raved about the wines and said they wanted to do a wine dinner at their home catered by Laura and have me there next time. Unfortunately, there won’t be that next time, and its too bad. I learned from that night sledding many years ago and the various events we worked on together, we had good balance together, and good fun while doing it.”
South Orange Trustee Sheena Collum began working with Laura two years ago on Irvington Avenue improvements “where Blue Plate Special had become a central and much loved neighborhood anchor.” Collum said Laura’s optimism was “contagious.”
Collum continued, “When we all began this journey together, we knew there would be many challenges but when people could work hard, work smart, work together and have fun in the process – anything was possible. We’d sit at BPS and dream big and laugh so hard it’d make our face hurt. When opportunities came up, Laura was always so quick to volunteer – whether it was planning events or planting flowers or reaching out to new partners. Laura was also very big on hugging people and she showed her affection for others very easily.
“I think Laura’s legacy is going to be a reminder of how important it is to be kind to others and how this life we live is nothing unless its surrounded by people you love and they love you back. Thank you for the beautiful memories, Laura.”