Dr. Denis Nicholson, a physician who spent six decades as an organist and choir director at St. Ignatius Martyr Roman Catholic Church in Long Beach, died March 20 after a battle with bladder and lung cancer.

He was 81.

A talented pianist, Nicholson was offered a full scholarship to The Juilliard School but instead chose a career in medicine. He opened an office in his home on West Penn Street in Long Beach -- which he shared with his wife of 57 years, Eleanor -- and treated hundreds of local residents, including members of the New York Rangers.

"There was a real humanity about him," said his son, Peter Nicholson, 54, also of Long Beach. "He would see patients at night, on Sundays and would even make house calls."

Born in Manhattan in 1932, Denis Nicholson was the oldest of two children. His sister Margaret died of tuberculous as an infant in 1935.

Nicholson's parents were artistic: his father ran a sheet music store; his mother was a painter. Nicholson began taking piano lessons at age 5 and later attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan.

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Nicholson's family visited Long Beach frequently at the time, and at 17 he volunteered to take over the choir at St. Ignatius, remaining in that role through early this year.

"He will be very difficult to replace," said the Rev. Donald Beckmann, pastor of St. Ignatius. "He had a tremendous commitment to liturgical music and to providing the highest quality of music."

Despite his worsening condition due to cancer, Nicholson led a final rendition of Handel's "Messiah" in December.

Nicholson graduated from Columbia University and Columbia Medical School. After performing his residency at the VA Medical Center in the Bronx, Nicholson joined a "doctor draft" aimed at luring health professionals into military service. He spent several years on a Coast Guard ship based in Boston, returning to Long Beach on weekends to lead the choir.

The Nicholsons moved to Long Beach in 1963.

A general practitioner, Nicholson saw patients in his home, including members of the Rangers hockey club. Nicholson performed physicals for the team until their practice facility moved from Long Beach to Westchester County in 1978.

Services for Nicholson were Monday at St. Ignatius. Nicholson is survived by his wife; sons Denis Jr. of Point Lookout, Peter of Long Beach, Philip of Wichita Falls, Texas, David of Waterbury, Conn., and John of Medford, Mass.; and a daughter, Ann of Massachusetts; and nine grandchildren.