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Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - Page updated at 09:30 p.m.
George Hickman, a source of eternal sunshine at Seahawks and Huskies games, will be missed
Seattle Times staff columnist
Sitting at dinner with George Hickman about an hour before the Seahawks kicked off their first exhibition game, I was trying to get him to tell me, honestly, how he was feeling. He had lost weight and his shirt was hanging loosely on him, as if it were a couple sizes too large.
But George was having none of my concerns. Sure, he said, he'd had some health problems recently, but he was feeling great and he already had sent in his request to work all of the Seahawks and Washington home football games.
So, we talked about topics George wanted to talk about, his wife, his daughters and the prospects for his beloved Huskies. Or at least we tried to talk about those things.
You see, conversations in public places with George were always challenging because they always were interrupted. People stopped to shake his hand, to give him a hug, but mostly, I believe, to grab some of his eternal sunshine.
George was a guardrail that all of us felt we could lean on.
On Sunday morning, eight days after our pregame dinner, George Hickman died at age 88.
And the first selfish thought I had when I heard the news was that I wouldn't feel any more of his warmth. I wouldn't bask in any more of his sun.
Like most of us involved in Seattle sports, I first met George in the press box at Husky Stadium. As an attendant there, he was the first person who greeted you entering the press box off the elevator.
He was the presence everyone knew. He was the handshake everyone anticipated. He was the person you most wanted to see.
George didn't go to the University of Washington. He graduated from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., but he was all purple and gold Husky. He ushered at Washington athletic events for roughly 40 years.
His post for basketball and volleyball was underneath the stands, across the hall from the home locker rooms. And before the Washington players took the floor, they passed by George and high-fived him.
He was more than a good-luck charm. He was an incandescence players could take with them onto the court.
As I got to know George better, as our chats got longer and evolved past the usual pregame small talk, I discovered, as all of his friends in the athletic community discovered, that he was an understated, but remarkable man.
It was at a lunch one day that he first told me he had been a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military pilots and ground crew. He was a wonderful story teller and needed little prompting to talk about his life in the army. He was a human history book.
George Hickman was kind, compassionate, feisty, thoughtful, but most of all he was genuine. He experienced so many thrilling moments late in his life, and all of us felt as if we shared in his good fortune.
In 2007, he and the surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal. In January 2009, he and his fellow Airmen were invited by soon-to-be President Obama to attend the inauguration of the country's first black president.
"I never thought I'd live to see this day," George told me a few days before he left for Washington.
Rarely, but occasionally, I could get George, whose grandparents were slaves, to talk about what it was like growing up black in segregated America.
He would talk about being harassed and shoved while walking down streets. Once, while wearing his Army uniform, he was spit on. I asked him why he wasn't bitter and he said, "You don't get anywhere in life if you're angry. And besides, things are getting better. I'm talking to you, aren't I? We're having lunch together aren't we?"
Everybody who knew George wanted to know him better. He ushered for the Seahawks when they played at Husky Stadium. And when the Hawks moved into their new digs in Sodo, of course they invited George to join them.
Last November, he raised the 12th Man flag before a game against Baltimore and I swear the cheers for him were as loud as those for any of the iconic Seattle sports figures — Gary Payton, Tim Lincecum, Nate McMillan, Felix Hernandez, Walter Jones — who had raised the flag before him.
A picture of George hoisting that flag was hung last week in the press box at CenturyLink Field. Now, every time I enter the press box, George's wide-as-the-Mississippi-smile will be the first picture I see.
And maybe I'll still be able to get a hit of his eternal sunshine.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
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