Former Deerfield library leader dies at 72
Jack Alan Hicks
Updated: February 6, 2012 8:50AM
Jack Alan Hicks, the renaissance man who led the Deerfield Public Library through its major growth period, has died. He was 72.
Hicks came to Deerfield as a reference librarian in 1972. He was promoted to department head and then, in 1989, to administrative librarian. He led the library until his 2006 retirement.
The library’s annual circulation grew from 30,000 to 185,000 during his leadership.
Hicks’ tenure was packed with triumph, awards and recognition, but it may be remembered longest for one grand plan that didn’t quite work.
In 2004, as the library’s burgeoning circulation outpaced its size, he prepared for a new building.
“Every project needs a designer, so I thought, why not Frank Gehry?” Hicks was quoted in the Deerfield Review. Hicks met with the cutting-edge architect in California, and came away with a Gehry pledge to design a new library that Hicks expected would put downtown Deerfield on the national map.
But with an upcoming school referendum looming, voters balked at the $25 million advisory referendum.
“He thought there would really be cachet in a well-designed library. Obviously, that didn’t go over very well,” former Library Board President Sue Benn said.
“I still can’t believe that Deerfield didn’t go for that,” said Hicks’ friend Tom Roth, himself a designer of public buildings. “Gehry was literally one of the 10 hottest architects in the world.”
At the time of Hick’s retirement, Deerfield’s library had the second most books per capita on the North Shore and the highest ratio of staff-to-residents, while having one of the smallest tax bites.
Hicks had led a major expansion of the library in the early 1990s that was accomplished without moving the outside walls, but by converting underused basement space to a new fiction room and offices, then renovating upstairs.
Before the construction, “Jack had a beautiful office with big windows, but his new office was very small, with no windows,” Benn remembered.
“He said, ‘That’s fine. My office doesn’t have to be fancy.’”
He was believed to have been Illinois’ first head librarian to commit to the digital future and discard the paper card catalog.
Hicks in 1989 instituted the “Librarian in the Lobby” program, in which he’d regularly greet patrons on their way through the doors, asking for input. It’s an idea that was replicated at Deerfield Village Hall and around the country.
“He talked to everyone in the library,” said John Blegen, retired from running the neighboring Glenview Public Library. “He was a world-class friend-maker. Even the people who opposed him often loved him.”
Jack Hicks’ library was an unusually friendly place, Benn said.
“He really wanted the library to be a place where you could relax, meet your friends -- a refuge where you could feel at home and just be comfortable,” she said.
“Every Fourth of July, he made sure the library was open for lemonade,” said Roth, remembering the small-town tradition that ended with Hicks’ retirement.
Hicks also founded the Rosemary Sazonoff writing contest, an annual opportunity for Deerfield residents to have their work judged by professional writers.
“He did not have to do any of that,” Roth said. “He was such a community-minded guy.”
Hicks was also a champion of local writers. One of his last public acts, in late November, was introducing Highwood resident Lowell Komie at a Ravinia reading of “Italia,” the former Deerfield resident’s latest novel.
“He stuck with me from the very beginning,” Komie said. “He had a heart as big as he was. He just embraced you if he liked you. If he thought what you said was true, he would take you to his heart.”
“He knew the little nuances of literature. And he despised bureaucracy.
“He was a man for all seasons.”
Hicks and his wife, Donna, recently retired as the head of reader services at the Northbrook Public Library, were long,time volunteers for the Deerfield Historical Society. For years, Jack Hicks ran a book sale at the society’s annual fall festival.
Hicks, born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, grew up in the White Bear Lake area of Minnesota. Living at the end of a dirt road, he grew up haunting libraries and playing football and basketball at Mahtomedi High School. He and his brother, at one point, made and sold kayaks.
He was drafted while at Hamlin University in St. Paul, and served two years in the U.S. Army in Germany as both a drill sergeant and cryptographer.
“He didn’t believe in student deferments,” Donna Hicks said. “Someone else would have had to go in his place.”
He had planned on a career in engineering, but after the Army, enrolled in the library sciences program of Rosary College (now River Forest’s Dominican University).
He was recommended by a Rosary staff member to then-Deerfield library head Sue Whetstone.
Hicks worried over the First Amendment implications when white supremacist Matt Hale asked to hold a meeting at the library. But unlike several other area library directors, Hicks showed him the door.
Hicks joined with Roth in organizing the 40th anniversary display and lectures of the 1959 Deerfield integration case at the library. The embarrassing attack on affordable housing was still little-discussed in 1999 — but not after the library packed in visitors for programs to acknowledge the past, including a panel discussion featuring three of the players in the drama.
“I remember hearing one of the old Deerfield guard (say) ‘This is the first time this has ever been discussed in public,’” Roth said.
Hicks was fond of motorcycles, big woodworking projects, 100-mile bicycle rides, and books.
“He read voraciously, but you never caught him at it,” Blegen said. “And he wrote beautifully. The articles he wrote for library publications are some of the best-crafted articles, in library circles. I wish he had written more.”
Hicks wrote lots of poems, too, but only showed them to his friends. Several said they should have been bound and made available on shelves like the ones he managed.
He also wrote a well-known — among librarians — treatise on how puppet shows turned children into readers. Even as administrative librarian, Hicks wrote, directed and performed in puppet performances at his library.
He said he never wanted to spend time in a hospital, and at the end, he didn’t. On a trip to Burbank, Calif., he was strolling with most of his family when he had a heart attack.
“We were laughing all morning, and he collapsed, quite gently, as we walked a beautiful boulevard, all together,” Donna Hicks said.
Survivors include his wife, daughters Maren Pennington and Sarah H. (Michael) Gottschalk, and his brother, Dan Hicks. Services are private.
Memorial contributions may be made to the American Diabetes Association, P.O. Box 11454, Alexandria VA 22312 (www.diabetes.org).