sealPurdue News

December 20, 2002

Purdue VP emeritus, state leader in higher education dies

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – John W. Hicks was a man of many hats, who was equally comfortable discussing the needs of higher education with Indiana government officials, serving as acting president of Purdue University or reciting the classic baseball poem, "Casey at the Bat," for admiring crowds.

John W. Hicks

Hicks, who served Purdue for more than 40 years and had a major impact on Indiana higher education, died this morning (Friday, 12/20) at George Davis Manor in West Lafayette, following a long illness. He was 81.

In addition to holding key administrative positions at Purdue, Hicks for many years was the university's liaison with the state of Indiana. He is credited with playing an important role in creating and developing the system of higher education that has now served generations of Hoosier students.

Gov. Frank O'Bannon said, "Indiana owes John Hicks a debt of gratitude for the innumerable contributions he made to education in our state, including a half-century of dedication to Purdue University and a major role in creation of what is now Ivy Tech State College. His commitment to molding the minds of young people and to building institutions where that could occur was rare. I feel fortunate to have known him."

Purdue President Martin C. Jischke said, "John Hicks had a major impact in helping to build Purdue as a great university and in developing Indiana's entire system of higher education. His achievements created opportunities and better lives for generations of Indiana students, who were always the focus of his work. He was a towering figure in higher education whose brilliance and personal style influenced not only our times, but the lives of all who knew him. He was as much loved as he was respected."

Hicks retired from Purdue in 1987 as senior vice president emeritus. He also was an emeritus professor of agricultural economics and pursued his lifelong love of education by continuing to teach classes until January 1995.

The undergraduate library at West Lafayette was named for Hicks in recognition of his many contributions to the university. He played an instrumental role convincing the Indiana General Assembly to approve the facility.

The baseball field at Purdue North Central was named for Hicks to honor his accomplishments in helping to establish the state's entire regional campus system.

In 1999 Hicks was named to the initial class in Purdue's Book of Great Teachers.

Purdue President Emeritus Steven C. Beering said, "John Hicks was a consummate diplomat and a true statesman of higher education whose advice was cherished by three Purdue presidents. I will miss him as a loyal and trusted friend. His life has touched thousands of people, and he will be remembered fondly by everyone who knew him."

Hicks came to Purdue in 1947 as a student and earned his master's and doctorate degrees in 1948 and 1950, respectively. His lifelong love of poetry shined through in his studies. He was known to write long papers on economic theory using perfect poetic iambic pentameter rhythm.

After completing his degrees, he began teaching agricultural economics at Purdue. He was so popular with students, his freshman Agricultural Economics Course was called "Fun Hour One."

In 1955 Hicks was appointed executive assistant to Purdue President Frederick L. Hovde. In addition to Hovde, Hicks also served as executive assistant to Purdue President Arthur Hansen.

"From the day I became president of Purdue until I left the university, John was a critically important member of my administrative team," Hansen said. "His experience in dealing with academic matters and his knowledge of Purdue, stretching back to his days with President Hovde, were most valuable. Of prime importance was his role as a lobbyist for Purdue in the Indiana General Assembly. His contribution in this area of the university's life was unique and of great importance. John was not only a wise and thoughtful adviser, but he was great friend. He will be missed by the many members of the Purdue family whose lives he touched. And who else will ever recite as he did, his memorable 'Casey at the Bat.' There will never be another like John."

Hansen left Purdue in 1982 and Hicks was named acting president, a position he held until 1983 when Beering became president. Beering appointed Hicks senior vice president, a position in which he served until his 1987 retirement.

Hicks also served Purdue as secretary for the board of trustees in 1973-74, and most recently returned in 1992 to serve briefly as interim director of Intercollegiate Athletics.

In 1961 Indiana Gov. Matthew Welsh asked Hicks to serve as chairman of a commission to study post-high school education. The commission's recommendations laid the groundwork for establishing a network of state university regional campuses – including the joint Purdue-Indiana University campuses – throughout Indiana. It is a system that remains in use today.

In addition to his work at Purdue, Hicks conducted research for the Brookings Institute (1952), was director of the Indiana Commission for State Tax and Financing Policy (1953-54), acting director of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation of the Council of Ten and University of Chicago (1960-61), acting commissioner of Vocational and Technical Education for the state of Indiana (1987), and served as a consultant to a number of organizations involving higher education.

During the 1989 session of the Indiana General Assembly, Hicks served as a legislative liaison for Gov. Evan Bayh.

He was active in the Lafayette area community, serving on the boards of the Purdue Credit Union, the Battle Ground Historical Association, the Art Museum of Greater Lafayette and the West Lafayette Parks and Recreation Foundation.

He lectured nationwide on economics, economics education and higher education, and published about 50 articles on those topics.

Among his many honors, he was named a Sagamore of the Wabash by three Indiana governors, received honorary doctorates from Purdue and Vincennes universities, and was named a distinguished alumni by Purdue and the University of Massachusetts.

In 1985 he was elected to membership in The Indiana Academy, which works to promote business, public service, higher education, and the general culture of the state.

"I appreciated John's enthusiasm and energy. He was a great teacher," said Victor L. Lechtenberg, dean of Purdue's School of Agriculture. "There was no stronger advocate for education and children."

Hicks, 311 Lindberg Ave., West Lafayette, had a life as legendary as the fictitious "mighty Casey," from the baseball poem he loved to recite. He was born Dec. 2, 1921, to American parents in Sydney, Australia, where his father was an executive with Paramount Pictures.

As a preteen he moved with his family to New Rochelle, N.Y., and in 1939 entered Massachusetts State College (now the University of Massachusetts). His education was interrupted by World War II.

Hicks served in the Army Air Corps for three years in the Pacific Theater, stationed on the islands of Saipan and Guam.

After the war, he returned to Massachusetts to finish his bachelor's degree. Because of postwar overcrowding, he took some of his courses at nearby Vassar College, making him one of the first men to attend what was then an all-female institution.

In 1947 he married Elizabeth "Swiftie" Johnston, who survives.

Hicks was recruited to Purdue by Earl Butz, then head of the Department of Agricultural Economics. Butz later served as Purdue's Dean of Agriculture and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

"Listening to Earl Butz, I thought if I didn't come to Purdue, they'd close the place down," Hicks said in the book "A Force for Change: The Class of 1950."

In the late 1960s, it was Hicks who stepped in to deal with student unrest at Purdue. At one protest, on the Memorial Mall, he answered a charge that the administration was inaccessible by saying his office was always open to any student. When he returned to his office he received a call from police who told him 300 students were on there way to take him up on his open-door offer.

When the students arrived, Hicks said he would personally meet with each one of them, as promised. But, he said, the meetings would have to take place in groups of five, 15 minutes apart. Students waiting to take their turn lined the hallway outside Hicks' office. The line went down the steps to the next floor. But by the time Hicks had finished with the second group, the students – deciding they had made their point – grew tired and left.

Years later Hicks smiled and explained, "Nobody likes to wait."

Hicks had a lifelong love for baseball. He was a Giants fans who never really forgave the team when it left New York for San Francisco in 1957.

In a 1987 interview he said, "I always wanted to be a baseball player. When I found out I couldn't do that, I decided I'd like to be a college professor."

As a boy, Hicks heard a Shakespearean actor recite the classic 19th century poem, "Casey at the Bat," about a baseball hero who strikes out and fails to win the big game. Hicks loved it. He immediately memorized the poem and made it his signature for life, reciting it often during and after his years at Purdue.

As acting president he recited the poem as his address to a convocation of new students and received a rousing reception.

In 1982, when it was suggested he be named successor to President Hansen, Hicks refused, saying, "I'm too old, and I'm too smart."

When he retired five years later he revealed that from time to time he had been a candidate for president at other universities.

"Some I turned down, some turned me down," Hicks said. "But I'm glad I didn't take any of the offers. I'm just not dignified enough to be a president."

But his true dignity came through in a 1987 article he wrote for "The Purdue Alumnus" upon his retirement. In that article, Hicks summed up his hopes for the future of higher education by saying: "We must help our students understand that there is a 'moral order of things' just as there is a 'physical order.' This moral order is much more difficult to understand, for it is known only by insight or revelation, not by scientific experimentation. ... Purdue must work to produce (a) reservoir of free men and women who are not only free, but who understand the vital importance of freedom and of democratic institutions."

Surviving with Mrs. Hicks are eight children: John, of Detroit, Mich.; Roger, of Indianapolis; Gordon, of Carmel; Kenneth, of Houston, Texas; Meredith Sleet, of Sylvania, Ohio; Cynthia Ellett, of Broken Arrow, Okla.; Brian, of Phoenix, Ariz.; and Lauren Powell, of Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Also surviving are 13 grandchildren and close friend Nancy Royer, of Frankfort, Ind. Royer served as Hicks' administrative assistant.

Funeral and graveside services will be private.

Memorials may be made to the Hicks Undergraduate Library/Purdue Foundation, 1530 Stewart Center, West Lafayette, IN 47907.

Writer: John Norberg, (765) 496-7783,

Sources: Martin C. Jischke, (765) 494-9708

Victor L. Lechtenberg, (765) 494-8391

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