Service is the Rent One Pays for Living (1/29/2021)

The subject of this Friday Footnote is one who believed service to others is of paramount importance in our lives. He died two weeks ago after a lifetime of service to the profession. That person is Ira Hicks, Jr. He died at the age of 92.

For the younger people in the profession, you might not be familiar with Dr. Hicks. After all, he retired from the profession over 35 years ago (in 1985) and spent most of his career in his home state of Georgia. While we typically don’t feature memorials to individuals in the Friday Footnote, we are making an exception for Dr. Hicks. There are important lessons we can learn from his life.

Figure 1. Ira Hicks, Jr.

Ira was born in Macon county Georgia in 1928. He was the third of ten children. He was the son of a sharecropper and learned to grow cotton from his father. He attended schools in Macon County, Detroit, Michigan, and Taylor County, Georgia in his youth.

Ira enrolled at Fort Valley State College in 1945. He paid his tuition with money he had earned picking apples with his uncle (who was more like a brother) in New York state. In 1946, while a student at Fort Valley State, Ira participated in a musical quintet at the folk music festival which was part of the local Ham and Egg Show (to learn more about Ham and Egg shows check out the Friday Footnote for March 6, 2020). One of the songs the quintet sang was “Old Dan Tucker.” Ira also sang at the 1947 show. Ira graduated with his B.S. degree in agricultural education in 1949. He was in the first four-year agriculture class to graduate.

He started teaching agriculture in Elberton, Georgia after graduating from Fort Valley, but his teaching career was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952. He was stationed in Germany and received an honorable discharge in 1953 after a tank explosion.

Figure 2. Ira Hicks in the Army

Ira returned to Georgia in 1953 and continued his career as an agriculture teacher, eventually completing a 22-year stint as an agriculture teacher. While teaching at the Washington Street High School in Quitman he developed a new course in small gasoline engines. This course was later adopted across the state of Georgia. As an agriculture teacher, Ira had 12 students who served as state NFA or FFA officers. While teaching he earned a master’s degree from Tuskegee University in 1961.

Figure 3. Ira Hicks advised both the New Farmers of America
and the Future Farmers of America.

Ira joined the faculty at Fort Valley State College in 1971 as a teacher educator in agriculture. He received a prestigious Education Professional Development Act Fellowship to work on a doctoral degree in 1974 at Virginia Tech. He took a year’s leave of absence to pursue this opportunity and completed this degree in 1976.

While working on his doctorate at Virginia Tech one of his teachers and a member of his graduate committee was Dr. Nathaniel Alan Sheppard. What is ironic is that Ira Hicks had been Sheppard’s high school vocational agriculture teacher at the Washington Street High School in Quitman (Sheppard was the state NFA president in 1960 and a national NFA officer in 1962. He graduated from high school in 1962 as the class valedictorian. He obtained a B.S. degree in agricultural education from Fort Valley, a master’s from the University of Illinois, and a doctorate from Ohio State).

After returning to his position at Fort Valley State Hicks rose through the ranks and was a professor of agricultural education and Dean of Instruction in the School of Agriculture, Home Economics, and Allied Programs. He retired in 1985.

There are several unique and noteworthy accomplishments during the career of Ira Hicks, Jr.:

  •  He holds honorary degrees from both the New Farmers of America (Superior Farmer in 1961 and Modern Farmer in 1964) and the Future Farmers of America (Georgia Planter degree in 1977).
  •  In 1963 Ira served as president of the “Colored” ag teachers association in Georgia. [Curator’s Note: In the segregated South there were separate agriculture teacher associations for “White” agriculture teachers and “Colored” agriculture teachers. As a matter of fact, the national Agriculture Teachers Directory and Handbook which was published annually for decades featured a list of officers for each state’s agriculture teachers association. In Figure 4 we see the listing of ag teacher association officers for several southern states from the 1963 Agriculture Teachers Directory. There were also separate listings of teachers in the southern states according to color in the Agriculture Teachers Directory. See Figure 5.

Figure 4. Ira is listed as the President of the Georgia Colored agriculture teachers in 1963.

Figure 5. The Agriculture Teachers Directory and Handbook listed teachers by color up until 1966. The teachers above the Negro list are white.

The listing of teachers by race in the Agriculture Teachers Directory was discontinued in 1966. The listing of officers in all state associations was discontinued in the Directory in 1970. While attending the NVATA Convention in New Orleans in the mid-1970s I was surprised at the roll call of states. At least one state still had two ag teacher organizations – one for white teachers and one for black teachers and this was in 1974.]

  •  In the early 1980s, Ira chaired the Minority Concerns Committee of the American Vocational Association.
  •  Ira Hicks was thanked for his contributions to the National FFA Week Committee at the National FFA Convention in 1981.
  • Hicks served as a Peach County Commissioner from 1989 to 2000 and served as the Board’s chairman from 1997 to 2000. He received the Emory Green Leadership Award in 1999, the highest award presented by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. Only one person a year receives this statewide award.
  • In 2001 Dr. Hicks was inducted into the Fort Valley State University Alumni Hall of Fame.
  • Hicks was not bashful in speaking up about controversial issues. At a meeting of the Peach County school system attended by 500 people (January 12, 2009) to discuss a new school zoning plan (for 40 years the school system had been under a court-ordered desegregation plan) Hicks concluded “It seemed to be a meeting of no substance. People came here to get answers and they got none. It was a waste of the Public’s time” (The Macon Telegraph, January 13, 2009, p. A6).
  • In 2010 University Boulevard, a major road at the edge of the Fort Valley State University was renamed the Ira Hicks Boulevard.

Figure 6. Ira Hicks Boulevard

  • When Fort Valley State installed a new president (Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith) in 2014 Ira participated in the inauguration by representing the University Emeriti and Retirees as a Marshall in the procession.
  • Ira was inducted into the Georgia Agricultural Education Hall of Fame in 2015. The Hall of Fame is dedicated to the outstanding educators who have served the youth and adults of Georgia in Agriculture.
  • In 2018 a cabin at Camp John Hope FFA-FCCLA Center was dedicated to Dr. Hicks. At one time this was the New Farmers of America camp. The camp started operating in 1938. As a high school student, Ira attended the camp in 1944 to compete in an agricultural education quiz. Later, as a student at Fort Valley State, he helped move surplus barracks from Fort Benning to Camp John Hope. Therefore, it was poetic justice that a cabin was named for him some 70 years after he helped move barracks to the camp.

Figure 7. The dedication of the Ira Hicks cabin at Camp Hohn Hope.

  • The Ira Hicks Outstanding Agricultural Education Award has been presented annually during the past 20 years to a student majoring in agricultural education at Fort Valley State.

How many agricultural educators have a major road named after them, have a cabin at the FFA camp named in their honor, and received honorary state degrees from both the NFA and FFA? That would be Dr. Ira Hicks, Jr.

Concluding Remarks

In June of 2010, Dr. Hicks was honored at a special ceremony recognizing his many contributions to the university and county. In his remarks he said:

“Service is the rent that one pays for living. That’s a statement that I have made for a number of years and I really believe that a person has the opportunity to serve if he pleases or she pleases. I think if a person doesn’t serve, then that person is behind on his rent to life.”

According to Wikipedia, Servant Leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. Ira Hicks was truly a servant-leader. He:

  • Served America by being in the U.S. Army.
  • Served his high school students by teaching them about agriculture and inspiring them to achieve.
  • Served the profession by creating curriculum, serving on professional committees, and being president of the teachers organization.
  • Served the profession by educating and inspiring future generations of agriculture teachers.
  • Served the university in a variety of roles including being Dean of Instruction in the School of Agriculture, Home Economics, and Allied Programs.
  • Served his community as a County Commissioner.
  • Served his church by being a Deacon.
  • Served his fellow man by being active in the Masons.
  • Served his family. He was survived by his wife of 71 years and numerous relatives.

Ira Hicks epitomized the belief of Mahatma Gandhi that “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” This is something we all need to remember. Are you behind on your rent to life?

As the agricultural education profession works to become more inclusive, we need to realize that people like Dr. Hicks who had experience with both the NFA and FFA are becoming fewer and fewer. We need to search out those individuals in our communities and document their experiences.

A big “Thank You” to Curtis Borne and Frank Flanders for helping supply information for this Footnote.