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Just who was E. Russell Hicks?

A former student recalls teacher school is named after

A former student recalls teacher school is named after

June 07, 2007|by ALLAN POWELL

We are all enriched by legends about persons, places and events of times past. These stories take on a larger-than-life character when one has some form of association with the source of the stories.

E. Russell Hicks (1892-1966) was and is a legitimate legend in Washington County. It is a rarity to honor a teacher by naming a school to recognize his reputation.

This deserved recognition was continued by David Wiles, editor for the "Used To Be", the journal for the Clear Spring District Historical Association. He has authored an excellent article about the life of E. Russell Hicks, which emphasizes his love of the early history and rural culture of Washington Country.

My personal association with E. Russell Hicks commenced in 1938, when I was a student in his Latin class at South Potomac Junior High.

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How can one forget a class filled with restless, excitable and mischievous kids forced to take Latin? We may have been unruly nuisances for other teachers but, for Mr. Hicks, we posed no threat. He was a giant of a man and made it clear that he was in charge.

On the first day of class he faced the gathering with his back to the windows and, with fake sternness warned would-be deviants that "with this hand you will end up over there and with this hand you will end up over there." We could see in the background the outlines of the Hagerstown Hospital to the northeast and Rose Hill Cemetery to the southeast. We were smart enough not to put him to the test.

It would be interesting to know how many residents of Washington County have, through some sudden flash of memory, remembered one or more of the Latin phrases we were "encouraged" to memorize.

Not so long ago, Joanie, my wife, and I were visiting Annapolis. At one point we were walking through the Senate Office Building and happened to walk by the replica of the Maryland Shield etched in marble chips in the floor. Around the elaborate logo are these words in Latin, "Scuto bonae voluntatis tuae coronasti nos."

A flashback of that childhood Latin class produced instant recall of the meaning of that phrase "encouraged" to be memorized by the patience of E. Russell Hicks.

The translation is "With the shield of thy good will thou hast surrounded us." If imitation is the purest form of flattery, E. Russell Hicks would be overjoyed to know how many of his students have imitated his early recital of those Latin maxims.

A few years later, many of those who sat in that class joined the armed forces and memories of a required Latin class receded into the dim shadows of time.

But fate reopens closed doors and, after years of training in the social sciences and philosophy, I returned to Washington County and was invited to be on the first television faculty when the Ford Foundation initiated its all-country televised instruction project. Who would turn out to be my resources advisers? E. Russell Hicks and Mrs. Mary Mish were able and willing to give ideas and support for the 11th-grade history lessons.

One of the stories Russell Hicks relayed to me from his stockpile of history lore during a Civil War unit was about the colorful member of Stonewall Jackson's staff, Henry Kyd Douglas.

Kyd Douglas lived at Ferry Hill Place on the Potomac, across from Shepherdstown, W.Va.

According to Hicks, Douglas would swim from the Virginia side of the Potomac at night to secretly visit his parents on the enemy side of the river. If caught, he would surely have been hanged as a spy.

After the Civil War was over, Kyd Douglas opened a law practice in Hagerstown. Hicks averred that Douglas sometimes walked the streets of Hagerstown with a rose in his mouth to signify his contempt for the average man. He is now known for his spirited accounts of life on campaigns with Gen. Jackson in "I Rode With Stonewall."

In 1959, E. Russell Hicks invited me to apply for membership in the Hagerstown chapter of International Torch. There, Russell Hicks generously shared his huge fund of wit, wisdom and knowledge with those fortunate enough to be seated nearby. His mind was active and alert in his later years.

When Dr. William Brish gave an appointment to me to teach philosophy at the junior college, Russell Hicks was generous in loaning me special books for lecture preparation. One he gave is still highly prized because his signature is on the title page. "The Dictionary of Philosophy," by Dagobert Runes is still used with pleasure.

E. Russell Hicks was held in affection by all who knew him. He overcame the ravages of World War I to become successful in his chosen field.

It should be observed that his tombstone replicates the configuration of a book. This is more than mere symbolism. Books were a core value and endemic to his raison d'etre. Notice also the tribute to history and literature. One may be sure that modesty dictated such a short list of subject matter.

This great, good man is very much missed. His memory would be well served if some form of ceremony would be presented annually at the school which bears his name. He was, indeed, a credit to Washington County.

Allan Powell is a local historian who writes stories for The Daily Mail on an occasional basis.

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