Schools chief takes his goodbye tour


After 16 years, says Howard County school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, he has finally figured it out:

The schools, the students, the teachers, the parents, the staff members are important; Michael E. Hickey isn't so much.

"When I leave, I'm just going to be a regular nobody," Hickey says, with the grin of a man who just finished a hearty five-course meal. "I'm really looking forward to that."

Hickey's 16-year run as superintendent of the 42,000-student district ends June 30. During his tenure, the school system grew considerably larger (by 24 schools) and more diverse, and became known consistently as one of the top districts in the state.

And as he spends his last days before school ends tomorrow, no one in the district will let him feel like the nobody he craves to be.

He can't walk into a school these last days without being bombarded with hugs and loaded up with gifts.

Staff members hold his hands tightly and beg him to come back to visit or volunteer.

Community members with children long grown send him thank-you cards.

Though no well-wishers seem to ponder the fate of the school district without Hickey, they all wonder aloud what Hickey will do without them.

"He has to be doing something," says Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. "He doesn't watch television. While others are sleeping, his brain is working."

The cook in the Board of Education cafe is sure Hickey will miss her Caesar salads, homemade chili and "Dr. Hickey Special": turkey sandwich on healthful bread, with a smidgen of honey mustard. She, in turn, will miss Hickey's predictable presence in the tiny cafe whenever she bakes chocolate chip cookies.

"I heard that he was interested in, or thinking about being, county executive one day," Gateway School teacher Dianne Dunlap said at one of the dozens of farewell cake-and-punch receptions Hickey has attended in recent weeks. "I would have voted for him in a heartbeat."

Hickey, adamant and slightly amused, is quick to say he has no intention of being county executive, Columbia Association president or village dog catcher. He starts his new job as director of Towson University's new Center for Leadership in Education on July 3 and is looking forward to the holiday the next day.

On that first day, he says, grinning, "I'm thinking I'll take a bike ride first and then go on to Towson."

The work will be challenging, but Hickey says he is counting the days until he can look at a desk phone that refuses to ring, an e-mail in-box that doesn't blink incessantly and a calendar awash in white space, especially in the evenings.

"No more night meetings," he says, looking ahead to the coming months.

After all, he has been busy for 62 years.

Born in Iron Mountain, Mich., and raised in Walla Walla, Wash., Hickey took six years of piano lessons under Sister Euthalia, attended the seminary for a year but found girls more interesting, played high school football and ran track, tried his hand at college but partied too hard and got kicked out, joined the Marines hoping to be a pilot but ended up in the infantry because of a hearing problem - and thought he'd try college again.

At the University of Washington, Hickey earned a degree in English and moved on to teach in a Seattle suburb for $4,900 a year. But he hated the principal he worked for and thought something must be wrong with schools if someone like that principal could get a job, so he figured he'd get a master's degree in business instead.

"Then I met an education professor who said, 'If you really want education to be changed, why don't you have the courage to stay in and change it?'" he said.

The challenge shamed and motivated Hickey, who has worked in some form of education administration ever since.

Along the way, he has helped raise four boys, started an eclectic collection of artwork, trained himself to ride road and mountain bikes - sometimes up to a hundred miles at a time - bought a silver Volkswagen bug and is in his second marriage, to Nichole, an artist whom friends and school employees say he dotes on.

"She's a very talented and an amazing lady," Hickey said.

When he starts cleaning out his office next weekend, Hickey will leave many office- and education-related things for his successor, John O'Rourke, who arrives July 1. But he'll take the abstract paintings Nichole created for him that reflect on the joys, the sanctity and the purpose of life.

Friends say Hickey has a good handle on that.

"There's a sense of family here. He makes it a very pleasant place to work, despite all the trials and tribulations we go through as an organization," Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin said. "He's an outstanding leader and also a good friend to a lot of people."

"I think of him as a renaissance man," said state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. "I say that because his interests are extensive. He's been extremely influential in Howard County in promoting the arts. He's an avid reader. He really loves that bike. He has a deep appreciation for his children."

Then there's Hickey's love of fashion.

"The whole house has places where his wardrobe is," Nichole Hickey says.

"I want him to turn over his tie collection to me when he leaves," Cousin says.

Hickey says he won't give all of his 150 or so ties to Cousin or anyone else but that he'll gladly trade many of them, and some suit jackets and slacks, for blue jeans and a pair of Birkenstocks.

He's ready for dress-down everyday.

It wasn't always that way. There was a time when he'd work and worry constantly.

It wasn't until 10 years ago that Hickey took his first vacation longer than one week.

Until then, Hickey thought his absence from the growing district would prove disastrous in some way he hadn't foreseen.

"I just felt I was so indispensable," Hickey says, feigning a haughty tone.

Hickey's two-week vacation with Nichole and friends of theirs to the tiny, tucked-away San Juan islands near Seattle evolved into three solid weeks every year.

The longer Hickey stayed away, the more he realized the ship he had been steering for years was well-oiled and steady on its course. It began to dawn on him, as he biked for long, uninterrupted miles and kayaked in the crisp of the morning, that he could take a vacation and leave the school district behind, and everything would be all right.

"I think my greatest accomplishment was to really put together the team of people that we have today - teachers, principals, central office, custodial, everybody," Hickey says. "People who all are able to make good decisions and who are not afraid to take risks."

He says he has learned that a good superintendent will "set people up for success, and then you get out of the way."

So at the end of this month - after 16 years at the helm - Hickey will take a much longer vacation from the Howard County public schools, his final one.

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