You meet thousands of people in life, so many unforgettable. In my business, all those athletes and coaches/adminstrators, fellow journalists -- and I can still see a lot of them and remember.
You write hundreds -- no, thousands -- of stories and columns, don't remember all that many in particular.
Some people, some stories/columns are special. Donnie Bickham fit those categories. He is a kid I always remembered -- and the memory is sweet but also painful.
It has been 42 years and a couple of months since that awful day in January 1972 when, just back from a trip to East Texas on a couple of days off work, I received a call from the office: Donnie Bickham had been killed in a head-on collision, also somewhere in Texas, two days earlier. He was coming home to Shreveport from Blinn College, a junior college where he was a star football and baseball player.
He was 19 years old; I was only 24, in my third year as a fulltime sports writer at The Shreveport Times. I had known him for five years, first met him when I was about to go to college; he was about to be an eighth-grader.
Didn't matter that I was supposed to be off the day I received the phone call. I got to the office as soon as I could and began working on a column.
It was the first time in my professional career I had written an obituary column. Obviously, I never forgot it. It meant a lot to me then; it means a lot to me today. He was that good a kid.
As I read it again last week, there was some awkward phrasing and some repetitive thoughts. Two of the people I quoted, Coach James Farrar and Francis "Bear" Grigsby, are gone now.
But when I read about that "little freckle-faced kid who grew up to be an all-stater" -- as I wrote in the first paragraph -- I still get choked up. I've written quite a few obit pieces since, but that one was more heartfelt than any and I never put more emotion in one as I did that day.
Here's how much the people in Blanchard -- the town just north of Shreveport proper where Donnie and his family lived -- thought of him. A few years later, when a new middle school opened in that area, the Caddo Parish School Board approved the name:
Donnie Bickham Middle School.
What a great tribute. How deserving.
The Bickhams always have been among the First Families of Blanchard. A history of the town on the website caddohistory.com begins with this: Francis Bickham was the first settler to buy land in the area in 1843.
Some 120 years later, another Francis Bickham -- Donnie's father -- was a prominent Blanchard and Caddo Parish resident. Mr. Bickham for many years was the chief administrator of the Caddo Parish Police Jury (which became the Caddo Parish Commission). The Francis P. Bickham Building in downtown Shreveport now is where the Commission offices are located.
Mr. Bickham died in 1994. Donnie's mother, Donna, was a longtime secretary at the Blanchard-area high school (Northwood) where Donnie was a star student and athlete. She died two years ago.
I got to know the Bickhams through Donnie's older brother, Greg, who was playing baseball at SPAR Stadium in Shreveport when I first met Donnie. Greg went on to play football and baseball at Fair Park High School and -- full disclosure -- for many years was my Dad's financial advisor and then ours. Greg and his wife, Christy, remain our friends.
When I think of Donnie's death and writing about it, it also brings back the shock 11 years later of Joe Delaney's drowning, and The Times and our staff at the Shreveport Journal did numerous stories and columns on that. And just four years before Donnie, there was the death of a good friend and a star athlete, Trey Prather, in Vietnam.
All tragic. Delaney was a bit older, a college and NFL star. Trey barely made it to 20. Donnie didn't.
I have never been to Donnie Bickham Middle School, and that's my fault. It's a visit I should have made years ago. I know that my mother, in her Holocaust education speaking mission, several times spoke to students there -- and I remember my father talking about the memorabilia honoring Donnie.
At one time, I believe that a copy of my 1972 column was included among that memorabilia -- it might still be there -- and I'm honored by that.
Because that kid was memorable; he meant much to a lot of folks. He wasn't all that big, but he was talented and, more importantly, he was so focused and so determined. And he was as nice a young man as I ever would meet in a lifetime.
In his short time, he left a legacy not to be forgotten. People in Shreveport and Blanchard made sure of that.
(A link to my column of Jan. 9, 1972 -- with a few edits -- and a copy of a letter from one of Donnie's friends to The Shreveport Times ...) http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2014/03/a-1972-column-on-one-of-my-favorite-kids.html