Local D.C. tour guide nearing a milestone

Regardless of what some students might say about his age, Bob Nuckols said he and George Washington did not go to school together.

They're from the same neck of the woods, but that's about as far as it goes.

"As I tell the kids, he and I come from the same 'hood," Nuckols, an Alexandria, Va., native, said with a laugh. "I think some of them think we're about the same age."

Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va., has been a frequent stop on the many student excursions the Paxton man has led out east.

Destination D.C. might want to consider hiring Nuckols as a tour guide since he knows so much about the area.

Nuckols, 69, said next year will mark a milestone. He will take his 1,000th visitor to tour the nation's capital. While most of the visitors have been students, he has taken some adults there as well.

His motivation has nothing to do with money (he said he doesn't make a penny on the trips) and everything to do with his love of the area, how much he likes people and how much he enjoys seeing students learn about the heritage and history of the region.

His most recent trip was in March, with a group of eighth-graders from St. Malachy School in Rantoul.

Stephanie Franey, a chaperone that time, called it a "wonderful" experience.

"I'd never been to D.C.," she said. "It's a good way to see it. It's a fast-paced trip. You get to see so much that way."

Because Nuckols knows so much about the area, he is able to get good deals on accommodations and knows the ins and outs of where to travel.

Franey said the visit to Mount Vernon was one of her favorite stops. "We saw the Smithsonian," she said. "We went on a ghost walk tour in old Arlington, Va. We actually stayed in Arlington."

They also toured Arlington National Cemetery, took a tour of the Capitol, saw the exterior of the White House, and broke into smaller groups one day, with one group touring Ford's Theatre and the other the Holocaust Museum.

"The cherry blossoms were in bloom," Franey said. "We saw the Jefferson Memorial" and the military memorials.

Nuckols first began taking central Illinois residents to the Washington area in 1991, when he led a group from Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High.

Nuckols is well-known in both the Paxton and Rantoul communities, having served as recreation director for the Paxton Park District for many years and as director of the Rantoul Youth Center from 1994-2003.

"Ninety percent of the kids that I take are junior high kids," Nuckols said.

One of the more meaningful groups for Nuckols was a group that included the classmates of his late grandson, Ryan Coe, in 2010.

"That was the first high school class that I took," Nuckols said. "I had a great time with them."

Nuckols' groups primarily travel by train, making it easier to take more students.

"It's a great experience for the kids," he said.

The trips aren't sponsored by any of the schools, and Nuckols doesn't have to advertise. He said the news that another trip will be going generally gets around by word of mouth.

In June, Nuckols will take a seventh- and eighth-grade baseball team he helped coach to the nation's capital.

The most-recent St. Malachy trip was a result of a promise he made to one of the students several years ago, Hunter Clifton.

"I promised many years ago I would take her because I took her brother," Nuckols said. "She was upset then because she couldn't go. I told her when she was an eighth-grader I'd take her."

Another of the St. Malachy eighth-graders who made the recent trip, Justin Brown, said he appreciated the visit to the area because he enjoys history and politics.

"I had fun," he said.

Brown said his favorite visit was probably to Arlington National Cemetery.

"Just to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," he said.

He also enjoyed the visit to Mount Vernon.

"I learned a lot about George Washington, about the house and all the stuff."

Franey said Brown kept the adult chaperones on their toes while they were traveling east by asking them trivia questions.

St. Malachy Principal Jim Flaherty said it was the second straight year St. Malachy students have attended one of the Nuckols-led trips.

"I just know the kids love (Nuckols), and they enjoy going," Flaherty said. "They come back and they talk about it; they're enthused. And I hear good things from the parents."

Flaherty said field trips "are extremely valuable, especially if they're tied into the curriculum. I think schools all over the country are being more careful with field trips and tying them into ... a particular topic."

Nuckols said the trips have to be planned well in advance — generally a year ahead of time.

Currently, he's booked through 2015.

To tour the White House, people have to submit a request about six months in advance "because they run everybody through a screening system" for security purposes, Nuckols said.

During one trip that Nuckols led, a young girl filled in for another girl who couldn't make it, and the substitute's name wasn't on the list to tour the White House. Security officials made her wait in a retaining room while they checked her name.

"That's something she'll always remember," Nuckols said.

Next year, Nuckols will take two of his granddaughters who will be seventh-graders — one in March and one in June.

Nuckols doesn't confine his efforts to leading tours. He also gives presentations to second-graders, usually on Washington's birthday and usually about Mount Vernon and Washington's presidency.

He also does some volunteer work at Mount Vernon.

And he's active in coaching a number of Paxton-Buckley-Loda sports teams.

Despite his numerous trips to the D.C. area, Nuckols said he never gets tired of them.

"If I did, I'd probably stop doing them," he said. "I get energized from the kids, to see the expressions on their faces, experiencing new adventures outside of their comfort zone."

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