They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Anyone who ever looked into the eyes of Dr. Fannie Ella Frazier Hicklin saw an unmistakable twinkle that reflected the gleaming soul within. I have known Dr. Hicklin for about two decades and in that time, I have shared some special times with her where I learned about her remarkable life.
Dr. Hicklin passed away on Oct. 18, after having lived 101 amazing years! Born in Alabama, young Fannie grew up on the campus of Talladega College where her father was a college professor in the industrial arts. There was no question that she would attend college. One of the stories she once shared with me was that the members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. came to her home when she was 19 years old and “asked” her mother if she could become a member. This decision to join the sorority became an 83-year journey in the sorority where she has served in a variety of capacities ꟷ chapter president and chaplain to name a few.
Graduate studies brought Fannie to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she would complete a doctoral degree. After earning her doctorate in 1964 she became the first African American professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where she was a faculty member in the Department of Theater. She served on the faculty (and as an administrator) until 1988, retiring after 24 years of service. Today, there exists a theater named after her on the UW-Whitewater campus, the Hicklin Studio Theatre.
Dr. Hicklin lived an amazing life filled with varied interests and activities. She was an avid traveler who had visited over 40 different countries. She loved the theater and for many years along with her daughter, Ariel Ford, planned an annual week-long trip to New York to see Broadway shows. Dr. Hicklin enjoyed being engaged in civic and social organizations. Among her many organizations were the Friendship Force of Wisconsin, UW-Whitewater Board of Visitors, the State Historical Society (past president and first African American president), FRIENDS of the State Historical Society, Professional Fraternity Association (past National president), Madison Civics Club (past chair), Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (past president of two graduate chapters), Defense Advisory Committee for Women in the Services (past vice chair), Zeta Phi Eta National Professional Fraternity in Communications Arts and Sciences (past president), Board of Directors Fairhaven Retirement Community, and First Congregational Church (past moderator).
During 2018, Dr. Hicklin celebrated her centennial year and it was a glorious year of celebration. In June Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. honored her at its international conference in Houston, Texas, with the Lorraine Richardson Green Legacy Award before 15,000 delegates and members of the public.
I recall her sitting proudly beside Rev. Jesse Jackson. And, although Rev. Jackson is never at a loss for words, during most of his time on the dais beside Dr. Hicklin, he was the listener! After Houston, Dr. Hicklin and her daughter made their way to Georgia where family members gathered to celebrate her 100 years. Once they returned home to Madison, she enjoyed a weekend of celebration at the Wisconsin Historical Society and at a party of family, friends, and former students at the Radisson Inn. She did all of this with her typical style and grace in the midst of having had to move out of her home that was badly damaged by the floods of that spring and summer.
Whatever you imagine when you think of a centenarian, Dr. Hicklin probably defies it. She was intellectually sharp, artistically gifted, classy, stylish, with a quick wit and a great sense of humor. Spending a few moments with Fannie would expose a listener to amazing stories about growing up in the Deep South at the turn of the 20th century. She once shared with me that her father was one of the first people in their small community to own a car. Fannie indicated that her father had to hide his car so that hostile Whites would not steal or destroy it. One day while on a family road trip Fannie said they stopped by the side of the road to relieve themselves. Fannie said her eyes were attracted to some bright lights in the distance. All of a sudden, her father gathered the family and rushed them back into the car. He told her the bright lights she was attracted to were actually cross burnings and the people around them were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Despite being of small stature, Dr. Hicklin had a big presence and a commanding voice. One of her pet peeves was the failure of young people to enunciate and project when they spoke. At each of the various youth programs she participated in she regularly challenged young people to speak up. She was the consummate teacher.
A few years ago, she joined a group of her sorority sisters in planting some perennials at One City Early Learning Center. While the younger sorority sisters were struggling to dig the holes and replant one plant, Dr. Hicklin planted three and was working on a fourth. Her size belied her strength. Each fall she raked the leaves in her own yard. Independence was her trademark.
Another of Dr. Hicklin’s signature qualities was her impeccable manners. She never arrived at a home without a gift for the hostess in hand. She always responded to anything she received by promptly sending a thoughtful, handwritten note. Being in her presence was a master class in history, theater, etiquette, and grace. Generations of scholars and community members have benefited from her knowledge and wisdom and because her presence was indelible her legacy and the spirit of her twinkling eyes will live on.