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Love of university, education was key to brilliant, humble Hicks

By Joseph Bennett
Vice President for University Relations

During the summer of 1981, I left Penn State to join Purdue University as director of public information. Eager to learn and determined to succeed in my new job, I began by asking a lot of questions: How was the University organized? What kind of relationship existed between administration and faculty? What were our students like? How were budgets put together? Who were the best teachers and researchers? Were the athletics programs in good shape?

Answers to these and a long list of other questions invariably included the addendum that if I really wanted to understand, I needed to talk to John Hicks, who at the time was executive assistant to the president.

Hicks was on vacation during my first week on campus, and during that time, my imagination assembled a thoroughly intimidating portrait of an intellectual giant who knew everything about everybody on Purdue's vast campus and who would see through my ignorance and insecurities.

Thus, I was totally disarmed by the friendly, balding man with the twinkling eyes who welcomed me to his Hovde Hall office a week later. Hicks, who died December 20 at age 81, was every bit as brilliant as I had imagined him, but he had none of the arrogance we often associate with great intellect. He never needed to prove how smart he was or how much power he wielded. He was at once completely self-assured and sincerely humble.

Those characteristics remained intact during the year he served as Purdue's acting president - a job he did so well that people began to suggest that the University name him president on a permanent basis.

Hicks laughed at the idea. He said he was too smart to put up with the demands of being president and too undignified for the ceremonial duties. His work made him a public person, but he and his beloved wife, Swiftie, guarded their privacy and that of their eight children.

Upon Hicks' death, President Martin 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 ... 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."

Probably the only person who would have argued with Jischke's characterization was Hicks. He saw himself as Purdue's utility infielder, just doing what had to be done.

Although he drew the line at being president any longer than was absolutely necessary, there didn't seem to be any job Hicks couldn't or wouldn't do.

During the four decades from the time he arrived at Purdue as a war veteran graduate student until he retired as senior vice president in 1987, he did everything from teaching brilliantly to becoming a legendary lobbyist. He even served briefly as interim athletic director. To him, running the University for a little while was just another job - nothing to take too seriously.

As acting president in 1982 and 1983, he welcomed new students by walking onto the stage of Elliott Hall of Music and without preamble, reciting "Casey at the Bat." The poem encompassed his love of baseball, of American traditions and of poetry, and his dramatic delivery of it at the slightest provocation became part of the Hicks legend.

After the new student event, he overheard two freshmen as they left the building. The first said, "That wasn't too bad." His friend replied, "Yeah, but who was that guy?" Hicks thought the reaction was perfect.

John Hicks loved Purdue, and he loved working behind the scenes. When Steven Beering became president in 1983, Hicks happily resumed his duties as executive assistant, the role in which he had also served Presidents Arthur Hansen and Frederick Hovde.

Before he joined the administrative team, Hicks was one of the most popular teachers in Purdue history.

His freshman agricultural economics course became known as "Fun Hour One." At the front of the classroom, he stayed true to the spirit he established while earning his Purdue master's and doctoral degrees in 1947 and 1948, respectively.

Hicks once showed me some of the papers he had written as a graduate student. All were insightful, well-organized and written in a compelling style. Several, however, were truly amazing. They were written in rhyming verse. These were papers on arcane economic theory - five to 10 pages long - every line scanned perfectly; every concept was true to the theme; and all of the rhymes sounded perfectly natural.

I asked how he was able to do this when most students would be happy just to finish this kind of paper. Hicks dismissed the idea that he had done anything special.

"That kind of thing comes easy to me," he said. "Besides, economics is pretty boring, so I thought the professors might like something different."

As Purdue's chief liaison with the state of Indiana, Hicks spent many years lobbying for higher education. In the early 1960s, he led the state commission that devised the system of higher education that has now served generations of Hoosier students.

The undergraduate library at West Lafayette is named for Hicks in recognition of his many contributions to the University, but I think he took more pride in another honor.

At Purdue North Central the campus baseball team plays at John Hicks Field.