Robert L. Hickerson, 64, Hopkins lab engineer

October 28, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Robert L. Hickerson, an engineer who enjoyed hiking and the natural habitat of his 7-acre home in Ellicott City, died Wednesday of a brain tumor at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. He was 64.

Mr. Hickerson was a patent awardee whose longtime work with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel and at TCOM, a Columbia maker of airborne carriers of surveillance and communications equipment, took him to Antarctica, the South Pacific and Israel.

He was grounded by his love of family and nature.

"He worked through all his radiation and chemotherapy just for one thing -- to live to see his grandchildren go to school and graduate," said his wife of 41 years, the former Carolyn Kehoe. Their youngest grandchild is a month old. "But it wasn't meant to be."

Mr. Hickerson was born in Olney and was raised in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., in 1958 and married his wife in 1961.

Mr. Hickerson, who had won awards for physics, mathematics and overall scholarship, taught for a year at the military college and later earned four master's degrees from the Johns Hopkins University, his family said.

He accepted a job at the Applied Physics Laboratory in 1960, working as an engineer on various U.S. missile projects. His invention of an infrared horizon sensor for measuring satellite pitch and roll was awarded a patent in 1972.

Mr. Hickerson was one of three engineering staffers at the lab awarded the Antarctic Service Medal by the National Science Foundation in 1980, according to a newspaper clipping.

At the lab, Mr. Hickerson was known as a mentor who loved to tell stories of his experiences to the younger employees, said Tom DeMott, a longtime co-worker.

"I noticed a lot of people in the group that were younger ... he would go out of his way to help them with any problems," said Mr. DeMott, who works as an information security specialist at the lab. "He was a very good analyst, just a very sharp mind."

Mr. Hickerson, who loved history, discovery and genealogy, retired from the lab in 1998, but he found himself drawn back to work -- accepting a position with TCOM last year.

The couple lived in a house on their Ellicott City property for 23 years. They had spent a few years working on the land, which they affectionately called "the bog," his wife said.

Mr. Hickerson loved hiking and served as a volunteer hike leader for Howard County's Recreation and Parks Department.

He also traced his and his wife's genealogy -- his to the 1300s, hers to the 1500s.

It was when her husband, a "human encyclopedia," began having trouble at work in the spring that Mrs. Hickerson said she knew something was wrong. He received the diagnosis of a brain tumor in May.

"He said to the children that he had done so much and seen so much, that if it didn't work out, he wouldn't be so sad," she said.

A Mass of Christian burial will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at St. Louis Catholic Church, 12500 Route 108 in Clarksville.

Mr. Hickerson is also survived by two sons, Robert L. Hickerson III of Bear, Del., and Patrick C. Hickerson of Birmingham, Ala.; a daughter, Virginia C. Lindsey of Spotsylvania, Va.; two brothers, James Hickerson of Huntsville, Ala., and Henry Hickerson of Poplar Bluff, Mo.; two sisters, Cathy Pope of Kannapolis, N.C., and Lissette Rivera of Ellicott City; and five grandchildren.

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