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Willmar notebook: Hickey: ‘The farm’s for sale’

As a junior defensive lineman in 1955, a smiling Jack Hickey wore No. 92.

Who knew that one’s looming demise could touch off chuckles.

Jack Hickey sat at his kitchen table on Monday morning with a visitor to talk about football, cancer, hospice care, on being a boy in Willmar at mid-century, when the stores were open only on Monday night, and every vacant lot and playfield had a game going on, and knowing when the time is coming “to leave your pajamas on.”

“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “There’s not much pain. When it gets worse, I’ll get the morphine and then a hundred elephants could sit on my chest and I’d still be smiling.”

There are more than a dozen little plastic containers of medication on the kitchen table. Some are for type 2 diabetes which came on in his 60s. He’s 74 now. He gestures at the pill bottles and says he’s not even taking 90 percent of them any longer.

“Diabetes is not much of a concern now,” he says with a hearty laugh.

He’ll move to a nursing home when hospice tells him it’s time.

For now he’s at home in the 900 block of Third Street SE, where he had lived with his mother Clara, who died in 2010. She lived, says Jack, to be “100 years, 5 months, 10 days.”

His dad Art, a railroader, was full-blooded Irish Catholic. Clara was Norwegian Lutheran. He was born in Sperry House, during a snowstorm. He graduated from Willmar High School, the one on Minnesota Avenue, in 1957. He never married.

“There just weren’t many Irish girls in Willmar growing up and I was having a good enough time on my own and didn’t need help,” he explained with a bright smile.

Hickey was 6-foot-5 and closing in on 300 pounds playing guard on coach Bill Hansen’s six-man defensive line in the mid-1950s. Next to him was 6-foot-7 Marlin Van Den Einde. Red Harvey, a big sophomore already around 6-foot-5, added to the Cardinals immense presence in the West Central Conference. However, it was 160-pound senior guard Curtney Carlson who made WCC All-Conference in ’56.

The six teams from fall of ’53 to the fall of ’58 logged a combined 43-3-2 record with the last three teams a combined 23-0-1. Jack’s sandy-haired little dog, aged 13 years, is named “Red.” Of course, Harvey, before he died in 1999, had a black dog called “Jack.”

Hickey went to Notre Dame for two years but his grades there didn’t measure up. He came back and worked in Minneapolis as a bouncer and as a prison guard at Stillwater. Dr. Austin McCarthy, who he visited in his home town to have a wart removed, put the hulking young man, now nearly 24 years old, in touch with John Gagliardi.

He enrolled at Collegeville in January 1963 and went through spring ball. That fall he was the Johnnies’ starting center on Gagliardi’s first national championship team.

Bill Wagner, an All-America from Buffalo, had graduated and Gagliardi moved Hickey in front of two other returnees at center. “It just all clicked for me,” he said. “I was big and fairly quick on my feet and strong enough.”

He played another year at St. John’s and after 2½ years of higher education there returned to Willmar.

He got a tryout with the Rams in the mid-1960s. He was 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds with good footwork but his advanced age, 26, was not in his favor. “I stuck it out for eight days before getting cut. At least that’s how I remember it. It might have been after 20 minutes,” he shrugs.

He spent most of his working years as a long-haul trucker, retiring in 2000.

Another Class of ’57 alumna, Sharon Olson, called recently from Florida to check in on Jack. She is married to Charlie Olson, a ’58 graduate, who went into the family turkey business.

“I told her I’m a little tired and don’t have much ambition, but then I didn’t have much ambition as a third grader,” Hickey wisecracked.

In December he was given maybe six to eight months to live. He was having trouble swallowing. A lesion was found and the diagnosis was esophageal cancer. The cancer soon spread to his lungs, lymph nodes and bones, he said. He took chemo but that’s done now.

“It’s not as bad as I thought when you’re told you’re going to die,” he said without emotion across the kitchen table.

“I can’t bitch. I’m not exactly a kid. If you haven’t got it done by now, you’re probably not going to.’’

He claims to have helped educate his highly-trained doctor, foreign-born, on the vernacular for passing on the news that one is not going to be around much longer.

“You’re looking at ‘buying the farm’,” telling the visitor he’s not sure where the phrase comes from. Also “Don’t buy any green bananas” or, his favorite, it’s OK to “leave your pajamas on.”

Hospice is now a big part of his daily life.

“That’s quite an organization,” he said. “They come in and take over. They help you with all the things you wanted to do but waited too long, like writing an obit or naming your pallbearers. They step in and help coordinate your life.”

As this visitor prepared to leave, retired mortician Rolf Peterson (Class of ’58) stopped to see his lifetime friend. Peterson relayed best wishes of several acquaintances, he’d just seen, including Lefty Norling (Class of ’56), and an old girlfriend.

Peterson quoted her: “If he sells the farm, he sells the farm happy.”

Responded the irrepressible lineman, as close as the town comes to a living legend and favorite son: “Yeah, That’s fine. I just got to have cash.”

Hickey and Gagliardi

This story, updated, was first told in a column on Jack that appeared in 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the championship season.

Late in the game with the Johnnies crushing the Macalester Scots, Gagliardi sent his 300-pound center in at halfback to throw a pass, not once but twice. Hickey’s second attempt went for a long touchdown.

Gagliardi told his biographer Don Riley that “The situation called for a pass play, and he (Hickey) is our best passer.”

The Scots’ bench was furious for pouring salt on an open wound. As Hickey left the field beside the head coach, a Macalester coach ran alongside berating Gagliardi for the gimmick play.

Gagliardi remained silent throughout the tongue lashing and then turned and said evenly: “Hickey, see what you’ve done.”

Hawaii ice

Icemaker Kevin Madsen, manager of the Civic Center, is making ice this week in Honolulu.

The occasion is the first-ever curling event in the 50th state. The Hawaii Charity Curling bonspiel is scheduled for Oct. 17 at the Ice palace. The event is backed by American Savings Bank with profits going to the Kapiolani Hospital for Women and Children and USA Curling.

According to The Curling News, it will feature 2010 Olympians John Benton and Tracy Sachtjen.

Madsen’s explained that his role in Hawaii is similar to other national and regional events: “Prepare the skating ice to a level state so that when the ice production crew arrives we can proceed to make curling ice promptly, with no delay.”

He drives the Zamboni to put down the base sheet and then joins the ice crew to make the beaded curling ice. His specialty is painting the ice. He will also help on the ice-maintenance team during the competition.

Madsen’s background as an arena manager and his experience on ice crews makes him somewhat unique. “I’m able to be a liaison between the ice crew and the facility that we are visiting, helping to resolve any issues between the two.”

Upcoming, Madsen will also be assisting at the Olympic Trials in Fargo, the Continental Cup in Las Vegas and the U.S. Nationals in Philadelphia. The Junior Nationals come to Willmar in 2016.

On the fly

n Tough luck for the NLS volleyball team with injuries now to two starters. Senior outside hitter Taylor Thunstedt has been out since late August. She’s a three-year starter who broke onto the varsity as a freshman. Last week vs. Litchfield, at New London, fifth-year varsity player Olivia Setterberg went down in a heap with a painful ankle injury. Coach Gina Macik says her senior middle hitter chipped off a piece of bone and has a third-degree sprain that will be reevaluated today to determine if an MRI is needed. Added Macik: “We certainly miss her presence. Her block was a strong point of our game and her consistent attack from all areas was a force for us as well.”

n Name game: At the 20-school Perham cross-country meet last week, Willmar Hansons/Hansens won all three girls races. Sisters Samantha Hanson and Jessa Hanson were 1-2 in the girls varsity 4k, Courtney Hanson, no relation, won the JV 4k and Leah Hansen won the girls junior high run. The Cardinals again showed extraordinary depth winning 5 of 6 races with 5 individual champions at the St. Cloud Tech Invite on Tuesday. Besides Samantha Hanson and Tom Seifert on varsity, Alexis Miley and Isaac Thompson won the JV races and Leah Hansen the girls middle school. The only team not to win was boys middle school which was second by one point to Little Falls 57-58. There were 13 schools at the meet.

n Registration for WCER In-House kid hockey is underway. Free rental equipment is available for K-5th-graders. Ice time is Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Details at or or stop by the Jefferson Learning Center office (231-8490).

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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