Michael E. Hickey, who led Howard County’s public schools for 16 years, died of Parkinson’s disease and other complications Sunday at Chestnut Grove Assisted Living. The Columbia resident was 84.
“He was a significant force behind our tremendous school system and helped dictate the quality of life here,” former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said. “He dedicated his career to his students and their families. And families moved to Howard County to educate their children because of his work.”
He ran a 42,000-student district that grew by 24 schools, became more ethnically diverse and was one of Maryland’s top-performing academic jurisdictions.
Born in Iron Mountain, Michigan, and raised in Walla Walla, Washington, he was an Eagle Scout.
He took piano lessons for six years from Sister Euthalia and attended a Roman Catholic seminary for a year but found girls more interesting.
While at St. Patrick High School, he played football and ran track. He was kicked out of a college — he said he partied too hard — and joined the Marines hoping to be a pilot, but ended up in the infantry because of a hearing problem.
He earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Washington, taught high school English for two years and then returned to his alma mater, where he completed a master’s and then a doctorate with honors in 1969.
He taught in a Seattle suburb for $4,900 a year, he said in a Sun interview. He recalled disliking the principal he worked for and thought something must be wrong with schools if someone like that principal could get a job.
“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 told The Sun in 1999.
Dr. Hickey was recruited as special assistant to the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and led a team to desegregate the schools voluntarily. At age 34, he was named the system’s deputy superintendent.
He served as superintendent of St. Louis Park Public Schools in Minnesota from 1976 to 1984 when he was named superintendent of the Howard County Public School System. He held the post until June 30, 2000.
“I feel like I ought to be doing something to recognize [the residents], because I’ve had a wonderful 16 years here,” Dr. Hickey said when he left his Howard County position. “This is a great place to work.”
Colleagues said he did not watch television and said that when others slept, his brain worked.
“He was a visionary leader,” said Penny Zimring, a retired Howard County teacher and administrator. “He was really interested in his staff. When I had a serious problem, I called him and he said, ‘Be in my office tomorrow morning at 7:30.’ People loved him.”
Robert O. Glascock, a retired Howard County schools assistant superintendent, said: “He had a wonderful gift of remembering peoples’ names. With that, he was able to create wonderful relationships with teachers, students, parents and business people.”
“He had a strategic vision of where the county needed to go. He saw that Howard County was on the cusp of a huge population growth and planned accordingly,” Mr. Glascock said.
A Baltimore Sun editorial said of him: “[He] has the longest tenure of any superintendent in a Maryland school system... He has undergone quite a bit of education himself over the past 15 years — not only about running the fastest-growing system in Maryland but also about how to handle the politics of securing an adequate budget for Howard schools.”
The editorial praised how he led a system that pulled up the test scores of African American and low-income students.
When he left the Howard County system, he said he was relieved there would be “no more night meetings.”
When a painter portrayed him, the portrait depicted him jacketless, leaning against his desk, papers in hand, a pager hooked on a belt loop and a twinkle in his eye.
He joined the faculty of Towson University the next day as the Naomi Price Hentz Professor of Education Practice and director of the Center for Leadership in Education. He worked until 2018.
He was a fan of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and what he called Maryland’s “cutting-edge school improvement program.”
“One of the things we needed was a commitment to a standards-driven approach to education and the requirement to be accountable for every student meeting those standards,” he said.
He conducted leadership institutes in the summer and traveled throughout the state and to school districts in Chicago, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.
The most troubled schools, he said in 2007, are in the cities. “We are losing the battle there,” he said, noting frequent turnover in school chief executives, principals and faculty.
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He said his goal was to help teachers “understand how teaching and learning have to change under this standards-driven approach.”
Dr. Hickey was an avid bicyclist and enjoyed travel.
He was a fan of Washington Husky football, wines from Walla Walla, spending time with his grandsons and outdoor grilling on weekends.
He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Nichole Thomas, an artist and former director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts; three sons, Michael E. Hickey Jr. of Seattle, Kevin P. Hickey of Brainerd, Minnesota, and Sean T. Hickey of Chelan, Washington; a brother, Patrick Hickey of Bethesda; a sister, Mary Hunt of St. Paul, Minnesota; and three grandsons. His son Timothy F. Hickey died in 2006.
A celebration of life will be held 4 p.m. Sept. 15 at the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia.
This article has been updated to include the new location of the celebration of life.
This article has been updated to correct when Michael Hickey died. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.