Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A kid to remember; a special school name

     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


  1. From Roger Poole: Thanks for the story, Nico. Never knew Donnie, but I met Greg in the 7th grade. Greenwood always played Blanchard in basketball. Greg and I became competitors then and remained through high school. After high school we had some times together. Such a great guy. Never knew of his loss. God bless their family.

  2. From Rod Chandler: We baseball players in Sunset Acres knew Donnie very well. It was always fun to play the guys from Blanchard and to be invited to play in the Poke Salad Festival in Blanchard every year. I remember Donnie making All-City American Legion at second base and three of us tied for runner-up -- not to boast ... we knew he was the best. We were all shocked to read of his death, and as the "upstyle" Linotype headline and subhead in the article says, Donnie was a champ in many areas, and indeed his life was too short.

  3. From Sandi Tison Atkinson: Very touching story. You have so many stories from all your years in the newspaper business. This is one I never knew about. I'd been gone from the area for five or six years by then. Your writing was exceptionally heartfelt.

  4. From Debbie Trainer Howard: What a great tribute. You could never forget Donnie's smile; an all-round good guy. Gone way before his time.

  5. From Cathy Waters Hauser: I wonder how many times a week Donnie's name comes up in someone's conversation. If not in conversation, certainly in our memories. Donnie called me Drip (remember my maiden name). I always felt honored that he thought enough about me to give me a nickname. Great guys like Donnie don't come around much any more. Those of us lucky enough to have called him friend have much to be thankful for.

  6. From Denise Dion: I teach at Northwood. We do shows in the Donnie Bickham Theatre.

  7. From Gayle Boles: I was privileged to live across the street from him and Greg. Just a sweet, wonderful young man.

  8. From Zelda Simmons Ward: After all these years, I still think about Donnie sometimes. He was at Lakeshore Junior High in my class and EVERYONE loved him. He was such a fun and memorable boy. A huge loss for all of us.

  9. From Suzy Miller Phillips: Such a great article. I was just thinking about Donnie the other day. He was always so sweet and always smiling.

  10. Bobbie Chance Maranto: I think of Donnie all the time, all the good Christmases, holidays we had together. I know now after losing Kelli how Aunt Donna (Donnie's mother) felt.

  11. From Marianne McDonald: I never knew him, but knew of him. Glad to get to read about him and to see that he is not forgotten.

  12. From John H. Robertson: Many of us knew that Donnie was destined to make an impact on this world in whatever field he chose to pursue in life. I know that just playing beside him made me a better player in any sport as well as a better person.

  13. From Thomas Youngblood: Always nice to remember the guys that are gone. Sounds like he was a good guy.

  14. From Elsa Van Thyn: Considering you were only 24 when you wrote the original article, it is most mature and impressive. I do have to take pause how some of your best writing and speaking is focused on the passing of people, and what do I do for a living -- Hospice. ... Anyway, your writing as always is superb. Just wish Mama and Daddy could have read your blogs. They would have been so proud.

  15. From Chester Kelley: I didn't know Donnie -- a few years younger than me. But I know [Jim] Pruett, [David] Worthington and [Joe] Huffman -- and [Coach James] Farrar and [Coach Clem] Henderson (all Fair Park ties). What a blessing to know guys with that type of class. I'm indeed a lucky man.
    While writing about one person, your writing seems to compel you to recall the other truly special relationships in your life. And, yes, Nico, that is intended to be a sincere compliment.

  16. From Sylvia Pesek: Another very touching column, Nico. ... And what better epitaph could there be than, "He was the kind of young man you want your son to be like."
    I'm really enjoying these "blasts from the past" ... even when they're about people I didn't know. They reflect a time that was very special. Of course, I guess all time is special. I just wish some folks could have had a lot more of it ... people like Trey and Donnie.