Going out with a bang

Farewells: When Superintendent Michael E. Hickey retires in June, Howard County will pull out all the stops.

March 05, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A superintendent could leave some school systems without getting so much as a thanks-for-your-time nowadays.

Some school systems, but not Howard County.

People aren't letting Superintendent Michael E. Hickey retire quietly after 16 years at the helm -- they're seeing him out with a bang.

Taxpayers are footing the bill for an $8,500 framed, painted portrait of the 61-year-old Hickey, which will hang in the Department of Education building with the portraits of the previous two superintendents.

That's better than what the most recently retired county executive got -- the portrait of Charles I. Ecker, which cost $3,442 in fiscal 1995, is a photograph touched up by an artist.

Another farewell gesture for Hickey: a "this is your life" exhibit of the school leader that decorated the Education Department's walls in late November and December, with portraits done by students, newspaper clippings, photographs and memorabilia.

There's even a "Mike Hickey Week" -- actually three days, May 17 to 19 -- when students will thank the superintendent in a variety of ways, but the plans are top secret.

And a 20-person party committee has been working since October to plan Hickey's retirement bash, which will be held at Martin's West in June. Hundreds of people from across the state are expected.

That's it. So far.

The big send-off surprises national education observers, who don't see this sort of enthusiasm often.

It was planned with the somewhat reluctant cooperation of the recipient, who appreciates the thought but is feeling a little embarrassed.

"Everybody wants to do something for him," said Lois Hamilton, his executive assistant, who has worked for Hickey from the beginning and will retire with him. "It's been hard to hold people down."

Among the more elaborate suggestions: renting Merriweather Post Pavilion for a "big production," Hamilton said. Hickey discouraged that idea.

"This community certainly loves its superintendent, which is a refreshing change from the tales we hear from around the country," said Jay Goldman, editor of the American Association of School Administrators' monthly magazine. "Usually there isn't a whole lot of pomp and circumstance when a superintendent leaves office.

"Sounds like the only thing they haven't done yet is name a new school building after him," Goldman added with a laugh.

It's not for lack of trying.

Among the names students suggested for the campus slated to open in Fulton in 2002: Michael E. Hickey Memorial High. (The school system's naming committee recommended Fulton High School instead.)

Some exiting superintendents didn't get nearly this sort of reception. When the Baltimore County school board fired Stuart Berger in 1995, he did get a nice severance check -- $300,000 -- but that's about it. (He refused both portraits and parties, according to school officials.)

The farewell plans for current Baltimore County Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who will retire from the Baltimore County school system in June after 45 years as an employee there, aren't too shabby. He will get a big party, a smaller reception and a memory book filled with comments from people who've worked with him.

Marchione's portrait will hang in the county's Department of Education building, but it will be a photograph touched up by an artist, with a price tag under $1,000, according to board President Donald Arnold.

And there's no Tony Marchione Week scheduled. Yet.

"We'd better get on the stick!" said Marjorie Hampson, a communication specialist with Baltimore County schools, after being briefed on the Howard County plans.

Hickey didn't expect an exhibit. He absolutely didn't want a portrait. ("The board said, `You must,' " he explained with a wry smile.)

And he joked that with the farewells starting so early, people are going to be glad to see him go by the time June 30 rolls around.

Hickey said he appreciates the sentiment behind the gestures. He knows that some superintendents get "ridden out on a rail" instead of getting parties.

"I feel like I ought to be doing something to recognize [the residents], because I've had a wonderful 16 years here," Hickey said. "This is a great place to work."

Why are people doing so much? Ask a cross section of folks involved in the schools, and they'll say it's because people like him.

He's "not universally loved," but a broad base of residents thinks Hickey has been a good superintendent, said Karen B. Campbell, a Board of Education member.

"Dr. Hickey is fair and straightforward, so he steps on toes where he has to, but he does his best for everybody," said Campbell. "That's why he's a success."

Marcy Leonard, who in 1988 was the first student associate to the school board, teaches at Wilde Lake High School and considers Hickey a mentor.

"He takes the time to make connections with individual people," she said. "People not only feel the loss of leadership for the school system [as he retires], but they also feel a personal loss."

Thunder Hill resident David Zuccarini, who's painting the official portrait of Hickey, has also heard from staff members that they like the superintendent's personal style. So what people will see in the painting is this: Hickey, jacketless as usual, leaning against his desk, papers in hand, a pager hooked on a belt loop -- and a twinkle in his eye.

"It's like you've just walked into the office and he's turned around to see you," said Zuccarini.

Jan Smyers, whose two daughters attend Wilde Lake High School, worked with Hickey as a parent activist and is very glad that staff members and residents have a variety of farewells planned.

She said she found him to be respectful, easy to talk with and willing to change. And she thinks the celebrations are only fair.

"I certainly am going to miss Dr. Hickey," Smyers said. "Anything and everything that he gets is certainly well-deserved. There's no doubt about it."

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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