Really, it was a small job for a such a big man, however diminutive his stature: Game greeter and usher at University of Washington football and basketball games and Seahawks games.
But his calling was war hero/friend/paragon. Around athletic behemoths, 5-foot-5 George Hickman loomed by deed and honor.
Greeting me regularly in the pressbox, Hickman’s grip was as locked as his gaze, his smile more intense than either.
“How you doin’, Art?” he said. “I saw what you wrote. I liked it.”
My day having been made, I didn’t need to ask what story he meant, or whether he meant it, or whether he said it to every writer he greeted. In fact, I hoped he did. Every person deserves some George in his or her life.
A most uncommon man did the last common thing: He died over the weekend. Age 88, it was about a hundred years too soon.
“If everyone came forward who said he touched their lives, we’d fill that (Hec Ed) arena,” UW hoops coach Lorenzo Romar said Monday. “He’s been here for every home game I can remember. He’d shake hands and always had an encouraging word. He donated to our program and was always looking to help someone.”
As with many of us, Romar didn’t know until the last few years the epic backstory of George Hickman: He volunteered to serve in a segregated unit from 1942-46 at an Army Air Corps airfield in Tuskegee, AL. The Tuskegee Airmen, as they became known, were America’s first African-American war pilots and ground crews whose World War II exploits went largely unrecognized upon their return to the segregated nation they helped save.
Enlightenment, as it always does, moves slowly. But dawn climaxed in January 2009, when Hickman and more than half of his original 330 Tuskegee brothers were special guests at the inauguration of President Obama. As a retiree short on funds, Hickman believed he would be unable to attend until UW athletic officials, organized by director Scott Woodward, passed the hat and made possible the trip of Hickman, along with one of his grandsons.
“My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed,” said the president.
However belated, the tributes and the affection from the UW community helped enrich the years after he retired from Boeing in 1984, where he worked for 29 years after moving to Seattle. Romar has told Hickman’s story to his players, unsure whether they grasped the world in which Hickman and other African-Americans lived their youth, recently recounted in the movie “Red Tails,” a film by George Lucas released in January to theaters and Tuesday on DVD.
“I don’t think (the players) totally understood what he did,” Romar said. “I couldn’t wait to talk to George (about the movie). He helped make history. He helped to put African-Americans on the map in the military.
“He did it with great humility. But maybe seeing him through the eyes of a coach, I could see he had some fire, some toughness in there. You see how he’d be successful.”
Success in 1940s America was hard to come by for a black man. A native of St. Louis, Hickman it in 1943 into the newly formed unit in Tuskegee, but told Gregg Bell of the Associated Press in a 2009 story of effectively being blocked from flying when he called out white superior officers for the mistreatment of a fellow black cadet.
“I felt like I had really been mistreated,” he said. He stayed with the program, graduated as a crewman and served in Europe as a mechanic who kept the pilots in the air. Mistreatment did not end in the military. He recalled to AP the humiliation of being pushed off sidewalks in the South and spit at while in uniform.
Things changed. Hickman did not, refusing to be bent by discrimination and injustice. The world came to him.
Romar recalled a passage in the Bible in which Jesus advises his followers, in the presence of the king, to sit in the back.
“Let the king invite you to front,” Romar said. “Everyone wanted to invite George to the front.”
Yet it was George Hickman who spent a lifetime ushering others before himself.