But Hickman was more than “Old Stoneface,” the nickname he earned for his serious on-air persona. His friends and family say he was a caring man, full to the brim with humor and conviction. Hickman died Nov. 19, 2011.
Hickman, 74, was born in Trenton, Tenn., Sep. 1, 1937. His broadcast career began during his sophomore year of high school, when the owner of a local radio station asked Hickman to work part time at the station after hearing him participate in a debate contest.
“My first time on air was Thanksgiving Day of 1954,” Hickman told Illinois Times for a profile story in 1977. “One of the full-time guys wanted to spend the day with his family, so I got to work.”
Hickman served in the Tennessee National Guard after high school, then returned to broadcasting. From his early beginning in radio, Hickman’s journalism career blossomed and expanded into TV. He covered the civil rights movement of the 1960s for NBC affiliate WMC-TV in Memphis, Tenn., attracting the attention of network executives who promoted him to NBC Chicago in 1969. After a brief stint in Chicago, which Hickman said he found “too confining,” he moved to KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, Minn.
In 1972, Hickman gave in to the advances of station managers at WICS-TV and moved to Springfield to anchor Channel 20. He would stay at Channel 20 for 29 years, retiring in 2001.
“That was all he ever wanted to do,” says Hickman’s wife, Betty Hickman. “He wanted to make a difference. He believed in hard journalism and wanted to tell it like it was.”
Betty Hickman says she and Don met at a party in the summer of 1961, but she already knew who he was.
“I saw him on TV before that,” Betty said. “When we met, he was very funny and that was the fist thing that struck me.”
They married only a few months later, in January 1962.
“He was my best friend, and we had so much fun together,” Betty said, her voice wavering with emotion. “He always had such a presence. I just loved him so much.”
Gus Gordon, chief meteorologist for Channel 20, said Hickman seemed “very imposing” at first because of his larger-than-life personality and old-school style.
“The thing that was so neat about Don was that he immediately put you at ease,” Gordon said. “… Don was really a mentor for most of the young people at the station. He was the guy you would go to and ask, ‘Hey, what would you do in this situation?’ – not just for journalism or television questions. People would go to Don with their personal problems. He was very helpful to the younger generation, and he was a great teacher.”
Les Vann worked with Don Hickman at Channel 20 for 17 years. Vann, now vice president and general manager at WKRC news in Cincinnati, Ohio, credits Hickman for giving Vann his first real chance in TV news.
“I wouldn’t have gotten even a sniff at a job like this if not for him,” Vann said.
Vann started at Channel 20 as an intern in 1977, and Hickman later hired him as a “photog” – industry slang for a cameraperson who films reporters in the field.
“The most important thing Don taught me was how important it is when you’re working in TV to be involved and familiar with your community,” Vann said.
Hickman took his job seriously and expected the best of everyone around him, Vann said.
“One night we screwed up a newscast because of some technical problem,” Vann recalls. “Don rarely got mad, but he got mad after that. He said, ‘We are guests in these peoples’ homes, and we can never let them down like we did tonight.’ ”
Though Hickman was known to many as “Old Stoneface” on air, Vann says Hickman was gregarious and personable when not on camera.
“The day my grandmother died, Old Stoneface came up, put a hand on my shoulder and said I should take the day off,” Vann said. “He deeply cared about the people he worked with.”
Dawn Hickman, who married Don Hickman’s son, Todd, worked with the elder Hickman at Springfield Scene, the community magazine he co-founded after retiring from Channel 20.
“He had such a sense of community,” Dawn Hickman said. “He only wanted to use topics and people who make a difference, people who have an impact, and he encouraged others to do the same.”
Dawn Hickman said what she’ll remember most about Don Hickman is his wisdom, sense of humor and extraordinary presence. “He knew everybody,” she said. “Any time someone stopped by the office, he’d have a cute little story about that person. I miss that knowledge. He just meant so much to us.”