Remembering Nicky Cumberland

Lisa Nhan

They’re hidden all over campus. You walk past them on tables, windows and stuck on escalator handrails circling over and over. With a label maker, Nicky Cumberland would make stickers of his and his girlfriend Clio’s names and hide them throughout campus for her to find, just small enough to notice and sometimes misspelled as “Nikki” or “Chleo.”

“He put them in all the places I went to the most,” Clio Harralson said. “They’d randomly be on a doorway. I’d see my name and think, ‘There’s Nicky.’”

Last October, Nicky passed away after injuries sustained in a fatal car crash returning from a Texas Cowboys retreat. He was 20 years old. But the stickers, hung up over a year ago, are still there. They make Clio smile every time she sees one.

Those stickers are just one of the many signs Clio and others point toward as they describe a gift and desire in Nicky to connect with others that “almost doesn’t sound real.”

“It was a running joke with me and my close friends that when you were in your most stressed mood in McCombs, you’d walk around a corner and suddenly Nicky would just be there,” Clio said. “It seems so cheesy to me when I talk about it. But I’ve never met anyone else who actually will drop everything they have without caring just to go take care of other people.”

Love Like Nicky

After visiting Nicky in the hospital, Sofia Antillon, a family friend, sat down at her desk unable to do homework.

“I just had Nicky on my mind, and I started to draw his name,” Sofia said. “Then I came up with ‘Love like Nicky’ because I just feel like Nicky knew … how to love the people in his life, regardless of anything.”

Sofia then drew the phrase and sent it to the Cumberlands. Shawn Cumberland, Nicky’s father, immediately felt that it captured his son. The phase is now on bracelets, t-shirts, in social media posts and almost everywhere people talk about Nicky.

Recalling early memories of Nicky in elementary school football games helping pick up anyone he tackled, Shawn said his son “always had deep empathy for people.”

“I didn’t teach him that,” Shawn said. “That was innate. That was just part of his DNA.”

Sarah Robinson, Nicky’s high school statistics teacher, called him, “the most genuine student I ever had with a goofball personality.”

Memorial High School, Nicky’s alma mater, will handout the first Love Like Nicky award this year to honor Nicky.

“When anything negative ever happened, he would always be the first to try and make a positive out of it,” Robinson said. “With him, class was a fun day every day.”

Nicky didn’t like to reveal the sacrifices he made for others. When Clio’s great-grandfather passed away their sophomore year, he rushed to comfort her. It wasn’t until after Nicky passed that she learned he had gotten a bad grade as a result.

“Nicky did all the little things that made other people feel good, but sometimes in exchange for his own sanity,” said Jake Reistroffer, Nicky’s middle school friend and roommate throughout college.

One evening, while on the phone with his son, Shawn could hear the fatigue in his son’s voice. Nicky, a member of many organizations like Kappa Sigma and Texas Cheer, was also a triple major in business honors, finance and radio-television-film. Nicky was constantly spread thin.

Shawn told his son, “Nicky, you can’t just keep helping other people all the time. You have to be a little selfish.” Nicky replied, “Dad, I think I was put on this planet to help people.”

“Never lost a friend”

After his death, many people Nicky knew would introduce themselves to his father as Nicky’s best friend.

“I thought, “Wow, how many times have I heard this, and why didn’t we hear about these people before?’” said Shawn. “There were just so many. He made people feel like they were cared for.”

John Limbaugh, who has known Nicky since pre-K and roomed with him during their first two years at UT, said Nicky was dedicated to maintaining relationships.

“Nicky said to me many times, and he really cared about this, that he’s never lost a friend,” Limbaugh said. “He’s never been friends with someone and then not been friends with them.”

Limbaugh and Reistroffer are members of “The Heist,” Nicky’s closest friend group from early childhood. Shawn described the boys as second sons, due to the vast amount of time they all spent at the Cumberland house.

For the boys, Nicky “was like the glue of the group.” “He brought us along all our different phases of our life,” Limbaugh said. “He was the soul of the group … That group wouldn’t have existed without Nicky. He was the center.”

During last summer when they were all apart at different colleges or in different cities, Nicky would set up conference calls to keep all of them in contact.

“I’d pick up the phone and to say hi to Nicky and hear five different hello’s,” Reistroffer said laughing.

For those closest to Nicky like Limbaugh, maintaining their previous friendships is a way to honor Nicky’s legacy of never losing a friend.

“Nicky was so much more than just a person that was kind … he was a hundred, a thousand memories and little moments of intimacy and depth,” Limbaugh said. “In (the Heist), we have like our own little world that Nicky’s a part of still. He’s in all of the inside jokes. He’s in all of the little references and little patterns of quirks.”

“How do you want to be remembered?”

When Clio went to Nicky’s apartment to pick up her things, she came across a notebook in Nicky’s bedside table. Small and mostly full of to-do lists, the notebook was full of random thoughts Nicky wrote down. She flipped to the last page.

The only thing Nicky had written on it was, “How do you want to be remembered?” It was from a set of notes Nicky had taken during a call with a mentor, about a week before the car crash.

“That was just so wild to me that he was thinking about it so close (to the accident),” Clio said. “He wasn’t just thinking about it, but writing it down.”

But, as Nicky’s Cowboys application shows, he spent a lot of time thinking about narratives and his own story in relation to others’.

“Narratives serve as the foundation for identity, defining an individual’s or group’s past and constructing aspirations for the future,” Nicky wrote for the last application question. “If there’s one lesson the University of Texas has taught me, it’s that there are many ways to change the world, maybe I can try by telling a story.”