The Bell Curve: Clifford died as he lived

October 06, 2010|By Joseph N. Bell

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.

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