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Former Highly-Respected Coal Executive, Don Nicewonder, Passes


November 16, 2022 - Heaven was graced with the presence of a precious soul when Don Nicewonder of Bristol, Virginia, former highly-respected coal executive, passed away approximately 8 hours before his 85th Birthday on Saturday, November 12, 2022 at his residence surrounded by his family and caregivers. Don attributed his many successes in life not only to his hard work, effort and dedication, but also to the support that he received from his family, friends, partners and employees throughout his life. 


Don Nicewonder

He was preceded in death by his parents, John and Lena Nicewonder and his sister Wilma and her husband Charles Overbey of Marion, Virginia. Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Etta Nicewonder; two sons, Kenny Nicewonder of Bristol, Virginia, and Kevin Nicewonder and his wife Kim Grace Nicewonder of Abingdon, Virginia; one daughter, Kim Nicewonder Johnson of Bristol, Virginia; seven grandchildren, Reid Nicewonder of Los Angeles, California, Paulena Johnson of the Netherlands, Ross Nicewonder of Denver, Colorado, Nick Nicewonder of Asheville, North Carolina, Carly Nicewonder of Bristol, Virginia, Lexi Johnson of Alexandria, Virginia, and Steven Johnson of Bristol, Virginia; and one brother, JD Nicewonder and his wife Loraine Nicewonder of Bristol, Virginia. 

Almost 67 years ago, after two weeks attending Emory and Henry College, Don began working on his brother J.D.'s surface coal mine. After two years of working for companies owned by his brother, Don started two of his own coal companies operating in Kentucky for approximately 15 years before selling to McCulloch Oil Corporation. In 1974, in association with a small group of partners, Don purchased approximately 36,000 acres in Buchanan County, Virginia and McDowell County, West Virginia, from the Shawmut Bank of Boston. 

More than 48 years later, this Virginia Energy Company property is still producing and shipping coal. In the mid eighties, during some of the worst times in the coal market, Don went in search of new coal reserves to secure his and his family’s future in the coal business. Along with his two sons, Don found significant reserves and started four new surface mining companies in southern West Virginia. At their height, these companies produced approximately four million tons of marketable coal per year. 

Ever the consummate professional, Don was always a visionary. His visions of mining in an environmentally sound and conscious way produced many award winning surface mine reclamation projects to include the beautiful Twisted Gun Golf Course, an 18-hole links-style public golf course at Wharncliffe, West Virginia; construction of approximately 15 miles of the King Coal Highway, I-73 between Gilbert and Williamson, West Virginia; and a new airport with a runway longer than Charleston’s Yeager airport, constructed near Ragland, West Virginia. 

In October of 2005, Don and his family sold all of their mining operations to Alpha Natural Resources in a deal that Don says “was not one that I wanted to do personally, however, in this era of environmental regulation and litigation it’s hard for a family-run business, as large as we had become, to handle the associated liabilities”. While mining had always been Don’s main business focus, he had always been one to keep diversified in case the coal market declined. Over the years he, along with family and other partners, started The Nicewonder Group which controls an array of different businesses. 

Twisted Gun was not Don's first golf course undertaking. Don's first dream of building a PGA quality golf course became a reality in 1992 when the Tom Fazio designed "The Virginian" was constructed near his home in Bristol, Virginia. Twenty years later, a six acre vineyard was added to the property and just recently Nicewonder Farm and Vineyards opened its 37 room Inn and Yurts and features award winning wines from his vineyard and is another example of Don's unrelenting quest for excellence. Residential lot sales at The Virginian, multiple shopping centers, office buildings and undeveloped properties throughout Virginia and southern Florida are also a part of the group’s portfolio. Also included are three sold-out condo projects in Florida: The Residences at World Golf Village in St. Augustine; Ocean Villas at Serenata Beach in South Ponte Vedra Beach; and Villariva, a high rise project in the downtown historic district of Jacksonville. 

Another two interesting businesses the Nicewonder Group started was with the acquisition of two clay deposits, one in King William County, Virginia and the other in a small Vermont town about five miles from the Canadian border. Old Dominion Clay Co. mines and delivers clay to an onsite Ralston Purina plant that uses the material for the production, packaging and shipping of cat litter across the country and Vermont Brick Manufacturing mines clay and produces a unique hand molded “water struck” brick used in new institutional and residential projects and used in matching existing historic architecture throughout New England and into Canada including most Ivy League schools and other public and private institutional buildings. 

Being a successful businessman, Don always had a desire to participate in many philanthropic endeavors close to home in the hopes of growing the quality of education and healthcare in his immediate area. He supports many local colleges and state universities and was a major donor of two local private preschool-high school educational institutions, Sullins Academy and The Morrison School in Bristol, Virginia. Don, along with his brother J.D., was also instrumental in acquiring, housing and upgrading a Cyberknife, a breast coil for the Magnetic Resonance Imaging unit and a Da Vinci Robotic Surgery Program with gifts to the Welmont Foundation for the Bristol Regional Medical Center in Bristol, Tennessee. There are only a few cancer centers in the entire United States offering this level of comprehensive service and their charity have, with no doubt, resulted in many saved lives and renewed hope for thousands of people in the region.

To those that know him, Don Nicewonder is much more than a highly successful coal miner, businessman and philanthropist. His rather quiet demeanor and respectful consideration of others has earned the admiration of everyone that he has come in contact with. Don had a passion for mining, flying and golf, but if you wanted to sum him up in one word it would be "CLASS". Always exhibiting the greatest dignity and courtesy, he is the epitome of the perfect southern gentleman and he stands as a role model for his family, friends and business colleagues. The family wishes to express their sincere thanks to the following people: his personal secretaries of many years, Ella Nora Carmony and Rhonda Ratliff, his caregivers through the last seven years, Jimmy Woods, Jacqueline Cline, David Young and Daniel Roark, his physical therapist, Greg Spurling, and his Grounds and Maintenance Director at The Virginian, Chuck James, who was always there with a helping hand whenever or for whatever was needed and to all the other partners, employees and friends that have always been like a part of our extended family.

A memorial service will be conducted on Thursday, November 17, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. at Highlands Fellowship Chapel, Abingdon, Virginia with the family receiving friends at a Celebration of Life to follow at 7:00 p.m. in the clubhouse at The Virginian Golf Club. Condolences and memories may be left for the family at Akard Funeral Home, 1912 W. State St., Bristol, TN is honored to be serving the Nicewonder family.