NOT BY CHOICE – by Robert Z. Hicks
‘The year of my 15th birthday, 1950, was a wonderful year in my life! I was thoroughly enjoying the new strength and abilities of my maturing body. The physical activities of Scouting and marching in the school band filled my days and appeared to set the stage for wonderful things to come! But, a seemingly insignificant event was about to initiate a dramatic turn of events that would reshape the rest of my life!
In July, I went by train with a group of Scouts from Michigan to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Hiking through the mountains with pack burros was both a thrill and a test of my new physical strength. One day the trail led over the top of a mountain where I could see three States and the tops of rain clouds in the valleys below. I savored the panoramic view, and treasured the experience! Near the ranch headquarters on the last day, I climbed a high wire fence to be safely away from a grazing buffalo, and watched a mosquito bite my arm, a trivial thing that I thought would be of no consequence and soon forgotten.
September meant school starting again, and my wonderful life continued blossoming! I won “First Chair” trumpet in the high school marching band, and music became the center of my activities. On my previous birthday, Daddy had proudly presented me with a shiny new Selmer cornet, the finest instrument of the day! I won medals at State music festivals, and the Assistant Band Director at Michigan State University invited me to take lessons with him…was I flattered! My life was all planned in my mind. I would become a professional musician, or a band director, and play my horn the rest of my life. Scouting and music were the center of my wonderful life!
Then one day at home, as I walked into the living room, I fell! I just lost my balance and fell! I fell again the next day, and Mom dug out Grandpa’s old cane so I could get around. Something was drastically wrong! The two doctors we went to in the small towns nearby were unable to diagnose my problem, so my aunt took me to see a doctor friend in Chicago. I believe providentially, he knew Dr. Richard Richter, head neurologist at the University of Chicago Clinics, who saw me the next day.
A spinal tap revealed the presence of encephalitis; a virus carried by mosquitoes that attacks the nervous system. I was almost completely paralyzed, and could not lift my hands to feed myself. It was not until years later I learned that encephalitis usually resulted in death or mental incapacitation. The doctors tried the then current “miracle” drugs, and then with no other option evident, they ordered an iron lung to prolong my functioning.
Betty Murdock, head nurse on the floor, overheard their plans. She awakened in the night, and felt prompted to drag her roommate out of bed to pray for me. The next morning, my condition had turned for the better, the iron lung was cancelled, and I began recovering! Apparently, God waited for that one last obedient prayer before touching me! Betty shared the details of the story in correspondence with my mother years later.
My stay at the hospital stretched out to four months, and more months passed while I lay at home in a rented hospital bed. I started school again in September, walking upright with arm cuff crutches.
Because of neuromuscular impairment, I was unable to play my horn. My new limitations forced me to use my brain instead of physical abilities. Missing a year of school gave me time to mature, and to my surprise, I started getting good grades for the first time in high school.
It never occurred to me to change my goal of being a musician, so when I qualified for a scholarship to the University of Michigan, I started in Music School. Discouraged by my inability to play the piano or my horn very well, I switched to a business track.
Looking back, I can see how people “coincidentally” influenced my life by helping me to learn more effectively. School became easier and I was able to complete a Bachelor of Science degree at Michigan State University, graduating with honors. By a “guided process of elimination”, I finally realized my best asset was my voice, and returned to the University of Michigan to earn a Master’s degree in Speech, with a new goal to become a speech teacher.
The fall school season was about to begin, and I had no job! “Out of the blue”, I received a surprise phone call from the chairman of the Speech Department at Penn State University inviting me to join a new intern program as a ¾ time Instructor, and ¼ time doctoral candidate. My three years at Penn State prepared me to be a teacher, and ended with a dramatically orchestrated answer to prayer that raised the curtain on 24 years of adventure.
I had been praying many months for the Lord to end my desperate loneliness, when a colleague acquaintance, who knew nothing of my prayer, used a transparent ploy to “set me up” to meet a graduate student friend of hers by returning a college bulletin. By “coincidence”, I arranged to return the bulletin on Valentine’s Day. When I met Betty, I knew immediately that my prayer was answered! I proposed to her on May Day.
The next day I received another surprise, an offer to teach speech communication at the University of Hawaii for one year, replacing an instructor on leave. What we thought would be an exciting one-year’s honeymoon, became 24 years of wonderful adventures in Hawaii!
The residual effects of encephalitis began to creep up on me during the 1980’s, so I retired early from the University, a painful “choice”! Consequently, we moved to Florida and began a new life.
One day, I watched Betty chase a green tree toad around the living room, trying to capture it under a paper cup. A floodgate opened of memories of animals, birds and critters I enjoyed as a child growing up on my grandfather’s farm. I felt inspired to write a poem featuring bugs, and shared it with friends. Their enthusiastic responses encouraged me to write more.
There followed a period of inspiration unlike any I had experienced before, with poem after poem flowing into my thoughts. A collection of these poems was awarded “Best Submission for Children’s Writing” at the 2005 Florida Christian Writer’s Conference.
A new purpose, or “vision”, began to form in my mind. My poetry could be the medium for making a difference in the lives of children. By sharing the verbal skills that God gave me as he directed my life, I could encourage children to become skillful with words, and become all that they can be. My life could be a testimony, that challenges and trials are gifts that God entrusts to us to make us stronger and better, and to prepare us for His good works and purposes.
I can see the handprint of God as He ordered the steps of my life. My lifetime journey with verbal skills was not by choice. A process of “guided elimination “ led me to a career as a college teacher, during which I honed my verbal skills by helping students learn speech communication.
Discovering and attending the Florida Christian Writers Conference was invaluable in learning about preparing a manuscript for publication. I still had much to learn, and more work to do! The award at the Conference encouraged me to continue working toward publishing for children, and I am pleased to report that “Tommie Turtle’s Secret”, one of the poems I submitted, was published.”
[Bio attached below]
A life threatening disabling disease in his teens, dramatically re-directed the life of Bob Hicks to an exciting journey, including a fulfilling 24 year academic career at the University of Hawaii.
After retirement, Bob went on to publish 4 children’s rhyming story picture books, before he passed away and joined Jesus in Heaven on July 25, 2021.
”Mr. Bob” has left a legacy of “treasured memories” with us in his writings, and the books he published:
Tommie Turtle’s Secret, Mouse in the Manger, Danny the Dragon, Ladybug Known as Lil, & Once I was a Kid with the Wild Things on the Farm (ebook)
Bob wrote the above article “Not By Choice”, and it is included in the book “God’s Handprints”, published by the Florida Writers Association in 2007.
ALOHA is a Hawaiian word used when greeting or parting from someone.
I thought what Bob wrote summarizing his life, would be a good way to end the autobiography series in this blog.
Aloha Bob, Love You,