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Victor Hicken, Noted Historian and Distinguished Professor, Passes Away

April 19, 2010

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MACOMB, IL - - Victor Hicken, noted historian, prolific writer and Western Illinois University's first Distinguished Professor, passed away April 8 in Iowa City (IA). He was 88 years old.

Hicken was hired at WIU in 1947, and served as chair of the WIU history department from 1967-1969. He was instrumental in establishing the University Archives and went on to document the history of the University in the book "The Purple and the Gold: The Story of Western Illinois University." In 1976, he was voted Illinois Author of the Year by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. During his last five years at WIU, he held the position of Distinguished Professor, the first and only WIU professor to be awarded this honor by a faculty committee.

In his 34-year tenure as professor of history at WIU, Hicken served on every major academic and administrative committee. During his several terms on the salary committee, WIU increased faculty salaries to match those of peer institutions. During his terms on the Faculty Senate, faculty powers were enhanced. As an instructor, he was named Most Popular Teacher by students, as well as the first annual Faculty Lecturer, a tradition that began with his address.

Hicken served on several state committees, including those that helped to define the role of junior colleges in the state, and developed and promoted the teaching of African American history. He is often listed among Illinois' most noted academic authors. His first major work, "Illinois in the Civil War," is considered a classic in the field, presenting one of the first and best descriptions of the Civil War in the West. Published by the University of Illinois Press and the winner of the Award of Merit by the American Association for State and Local History, the book has been in print for more than 40 years.

He was among the first to write about the critical role of the African American soldier in the Civil War. Besides contributing pieces to the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, Hicken also wrote for numerous scholarly journals on such subjects as African American history, political trends, and organized labor issues. He also served on the State Historic Sites Committee and, in 1976, was elected president of the Illinois State Historical Society. He was appointed guest lecturer at the University of Salzburg, Austria. Hicken also conducted research for the National Education Association and for the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, through a Carnegie grant. He also taught courses at Knox College in Galesburg (IL) and at Black Hawk College in Moline (IL).

Born in 1921 in Witt (IL), Hicken earned his bachelor of arts in education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. During WWII, he was officer-in-charge of one of the first landing craft to hit the beach at Dog Green, the naval landing site located at the heavily fortified Vierville, France sector of Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. His LCT(A) craft was specially designed to carry explosive elements to destroy beach obstacles before the arrival of the first U.S. and British infantry units. The German fortification and defense of the beach was so intense that of the first 250 Allied soldiers to land on that sector, only 30 survived the first five minutes of the fighting without injury or death. The Allied landing at this spot was portrayed in the movie "Saving Private Ryan." Hicken's craft was so damaged that it was beached at its landfall and he was forced to stay with the vessel for the ensuing six weeks. The ship's clock, which was stopped at 0630, and the bullet-ridden American flag, which flew at the mast, were saved by Hicken and are kept by his family as reminders of that deadly and historic encounter. He later was assigned to the Pacific, where his ship endured two typhoons and he witnessed the last Kamikaze attack at Okinawa. Hicken's experiences in WWII were chronicled in the book "Omaha Beach: D-Day, June 6, 1944" by Joseph Balkoski.

He met Mary O'Connell while attending U.S. Naval Officers Candidate School at Columbia University in New York City. They were married on Dec. 28, 1943. After military service, Hicken attended the University of Illinois at Urbana, from which he received a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in American history.

Hicken's personal interests included art, painting, poetry and music. He was a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan and enjoyed playing baseball in the University faculty and staff leagues. He was an avid runner and kept a regular routine of running 10 miles a day. He and his wife were members of St. George's Episcopal Church (Macomb) congregation for more than 50 years. After retiring, he and his wife spent most of their time at their cabin in northern Minnesota where he enjoyed fishing and birding.

He is survived by Mary, his wife of 66 years, of Iowa City; three sons, one daughter, five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

The family requests that memorials be directed to the Hicken Scholarship Fund at Western Illinois University, c/o Foundation Office, 1 University Circle, Macomb, Illinois 61455-1390.

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