The Bell Curve: Clifford died as he lived

Clifford Hicks died in his North Carolina home Sept. 29, a month after his 90th birthday.

He left behind many thousands of young readers who followed the adventures of Alvin Fernald and Peter Potts in his books. Hicks also left behind a cavernous hole where his heart had been quietly busy all those years. He was a role model that those of us who were privileged to be touched by that heart will find irreplaceable.

I met Clifford 60 years ago as a fellow freelance magazine writer in Chicago, and we never allowed that friendship to lapse. I wrote for him when he became an editor of Popular Mechanics. When I moved to California and made frequent trips to New York, I always stopped over in Chicago to shoot baskets with his three sons and eat their mother's fried chicken.

When Cliff and his wife, Rae, adopted New Zealand as a kind of permanent vacation site, in transit they always stopped by Newport Beach for a few nights with my family. And for the past 10 years I've been spending my birthday week with the Hicks family at the home they built in the wooded hills of North Carolina. Last Fourth of July was the first time we had to give up the tradition, and it was only with the determination to connect again "next year."

I would have been close to Clifford in any one of his roles: as prototypical Midwesterner, husband and father, author, editor, war veteran, political liberal. The only place where we struck out was his contempt for baseball, a character defect I tried to change unsuccessfully for many years. I found out long ago in that process that it was dangerous to take his closeness too much for granted.

While his heart was big, his convictions were implacable.

On several occasions — one in particular — when I was considerably less than honorable, I called him to get a pat on the head and be told I was a good person, and he refused to let me off the hook.

When I asked him years later why he couldn't make at least one exception, he said, matter-of-factly, "You lied to me."

I had, and I wouldn't ever again. He had a firm way of making a point.

Five months ago, a platoon of hospice volunteers descended on the Hicks' home with a six-month mandate to ease the passage of this private man suffering from virtually every major disease known to man, and a few exotic ones as well. Rae had been carrying this load virtually alone for several years, and it finally became more than even she could manage.

As Gary, the youngest of the Hicks, put it in a letter of thanks to the Hospice staff: "As you've figured out by now, my parents are fiercely independent folks and very strong of spirit … My mom is the rock that has kept the rest of the family able to cope with Dad's health challenges, but even Rae Hicks can't do it all by herself."

So when Clifford's privacy could no longer be protected from the swarm of hospice caregivers, he joined their spirit.

A year earlier, he had drawn on his waning energy to write one last book about a teenaged slave who had escaped north and was befriended by President Lincoln. He accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg when the president made his famous speech there.

I read the in manuscript on my last visit to the Hicks' home and marveled that Clifford could overcome his health problems long enough to bring it off. Now, in a much worse state, he joined the spirit of the hospice staff, shouting orders from his bed in between ever more frequent naps.

And for older folk, Clifford died as he had lived, celebrating each living day by sharing a martini at the 5 o'clock Happy Hour with Rae and whatever guests were on hand. Self-pity or complaints were as foreign as chatting about his years as a Marine Corps infantry captain in World War II for which he was awarded a Silver Star. He never departed from speaking only when he had something to say, a habit he had learned in his Iowa upbringing and perfected as a Marine officer.

Clifford almost beat the system. He was entering his sixth month under hospice care when he fell into a deep and quiet sleep. He'd been there several times before and confounded the odds and his caregivers by returning for another go.

One night last week he decided not to return.

It's my generation's turn to move offstage, and I hope I can do it with Clifford as a role model. He wouldn't like that idea much. He'd tell me to build my own role model and quit watching so much baseball. But even though he fought like hell, there was a kind of grace in his departure, a grace that was never far below the surface in this tough Marine.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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