Most drycleaners have never had the experience of following a police escort so they could repair a fashion emergency, but then, most drycleaners don’t possess Linda Say’s deft tailoring skills and an account with the Tennessee Titans.
The problem started one day when a player needed work done on his jersey as game time fast approached. As anyone who has tried to drive near an NFL football team’s stadium close to kickoff knows, traffic tends to be an absolute nightmare.
Fortunately, the owner of Nicholson Cleaners in Nashville was given a direct path to LP Field with a little help from Nashville’s finest who, once there, also guided her to an isolated room so she could weave her magic.
For the past six years, Linda has often found herself working late hours and facing tight deadlines between May and December each year for the team, or possibly longer if the team makes the playoffs.
Linda recalls the last time that happened and she and a few of her employees had to pull an intense all-nighter in order to attach the AFC badges on the uniforms in time. However, most people might be surprised to learn that the work can often be just as hectic before the season officially begins.
“In pre-season, we will literally put all of the names, numbers and patches and everything on all the jerseys for everybody who’s trying out, even the guys who won’t even make the team,” Linda noted. “Each guy will have at least six jerseys, two of each color because there is a navy, a white and a Titan blue.”
When players are cut, new ones come in, which means even more work. It requires many 20-hour days over the span of four weeks. Linda has help, but she feels a need to do a lot of the intricate work herself.
“It’s because these players want sleeves tighter, chests taken in, something shorter... weird little things,” she said. “We actually will do fittings on all the players. Now, because I’ve worked with them so long, it would be harder for me to re-explain it to somebody else than to just do it because I know exactly how they want things to fit.”
The job requires a lot of work, but fortunately, Linda has never been one to sit still ever since she was raised in Michigan as the third of eleven children.
“I was born with a tremendous amount of energy. I’m a little hyper,” she confessed.
Her high school had only 350 students ranging from grades Kindergarten through 12, yet she set a record (that has since been broken) for running the mile in the entire state. She also earned a basketball scholarship to attend Hillsdale College where she studied accounting.
By 21, she was married before she gave birth to four children in the next three years including a set of twins. Her family eventually moved to Tennessee where Linda’s husband worked for White Way Cleaners while she picked up extra money accepting alterations jobs from local cleaners.
“I ended up fixing things that drycleaners would ruin,” she recalled. “For instance, I remember a very expensive long black sequin gown with satin trim and diamond buttons. They had cleaned it wrong and all the sequins had curled up. It was a $10,000 gown. I actually found out where I could get the fabric from, which was New York. I took the whole thing apart, made a pattern, remade the dress using the same satin and diamond buttons, put it back together and the cleaner gave it back to the customer unknown to them that the thing had been ruined.”
From there, word-of-mouth spread quickly, as did Linda’s education on how to handle sensitive and challenging garments.
In 1996, the couple bought Nicholson Cleaners, which had been a staple of Nashville since it was started in 1938.
“When we bought it from Mr. Nicholson, the one thing he asked us was to keep honor to his name,” Linda recalled. “That’s what he said. I’ll never forget it.”
Five years later, that promise became more difficult to keep. Now divorced, Linda had to decide whether or not to keep the plant and if she was capable of running it the right way. Not long before that, Linda didn’t even know how to turn the boiler on, so she dedicated herself to getting better.
“I decided that I was going to learn everything humanly possible about that plant and I was going to make it go,” she said.
Since she took over in 2001, the company has doubled from 15 to 30 employees and has managed to go up in sales each year.
“We have not gone backwards, which is amazing,” she added. “It’s been a nice steady growth for the last 16 years.”
Her list of impressive accounts has grown over the years, as well, including the Tennessee Repertory Theater, the Nashville Ballet, Tennessee Performing Art shows and the NHL Nashville Predators, which Nicholson has handled since 1998.
Before she handled the garments of professional hockey players, Linda simply tried to save money by mending her son’s hockey jerseys and socks. That experience came in handy when the Predators approached several cleaners for garment repair work when they came to town. Her talents earned the account for the team and word-of-mouth continued to steamroll from there.
“Keep in mind that when you get these sports accounts, you end up getting the coaches’ clothes,” she emphasized. “Like for the Titans, we clean everything you see on TV that the coaches wear... their pants, their polos, their jackets, so it becomes a really good account. Then, we start getting their personal clothes.”
About four years ago, though, Nicholson Cleaners almost lost the Titans when a competitor offered a cleaning deal with a lucrative radio marketing campaign. When Linda was given the chance for a counter offer, she simply said: “If I haven’t earned your business then I don’t want it.”
It was a big gamble, to be sure, but Linda figured she had ingratiated herself to the team after years of demonstrating that she was willing to do anything for them at any time.
About 2 1⁄2 years ago, the team had a chance to show its appreciation back to Linda.
One of her sons, Matthew, born with Down’s Syndrome and still living at home with her, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
“He had to have his entire upper jaw removed,” she said. “The doctor who performed the surgery, and who did a tremendous job of rebuilding everything, loved one of the Titan’s players so I called over there. They gave him a helmet, a jersey, everything he wanted. It was so nice.”
The team also made sure Matthew’s hospital room was always full of gift baskets. It was a touching gesture and a nice endorsement for just how hard Linda and her business has worked for the team over the years.
She uses that same work ethic for all of her other customers, too. Every job is considered an opportunity to excel.
“The hardest part of my job is actually thinking that I can make everybody happy,” Linda laughed.
More recently, the company worked extra hard on that goal due to a couple of challenging accounts. Nicholson handled many extravagant and lavish outfits for the ABC show Nashville starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere (and will likely continue to do so if the show is renewed).
“That’s where my experience of fixing a lot of things that drycleaners ruined years ago comes in,” she said.
Another difficult recent job was for a local movie production of the upcoming Fall release “The Identical” starring Ashley Judd and Ray Liotta. Linda initially rejected the grueling job twice before finally giving in.
“Some mornings they might have 500 pieces. I would get up at 3 or 4 a.m., pick it up, bring it in, and they’d have to have it back by 9 or 10 in the morning,” she noted. “It was a tremendous account, but I was so glad when the six weeks were over. It was all period clothes, meaning from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, so we had to deal with a lot of delicate things, some things you couldn’t replace.”
While many of the garments she works on cannot be replaced, neither can the feeling of satisfaction Linda feels for making good on her promise to Tom Nicholson. Unfortunately, he passed away last year from cancer, but not before Nicholson Cleaners earned a Best of Nashville award.
“I was able to take the plaque to Mr. Nicholson and give it to him,” she said. “That was such an honor to show him that we did do what he asked us to do.”
Surprisingly, that touching memory, along with the many memorable moments of working on extraordinary garments for extraordinary people and being lead by police escorts for fashion emergencies aren’t even Linda’s favorite part about being a drycleaner.
While she has greatly appreciated all of those experiences, she is much happier that she gets to spend every day at work alongside daughter Andrea (her second-in-command), son Marcus, son-in-law Rockey and “miracle child” Matthew.
“Really, the most rewarding part of my job is actually being able to work with my children,” she beamed.