Jack Hicks Chapter 4

The 50’s

There is a singularly very correct statement in writing about another person’s life: “Biography is also history.”

A story about the real life of Jack Hicks would include a smattering of Depression Era events and attitudes; it would also include the Second World War in which both his brothers fought as Jack, like everyone back then, waited breathlessly of news. It would especially include – in fact, would specialize in – that era we all so often seem to address with a smattering of reminiscent adoration and occasional aberrant fantasy – the 1950’s. Thus, it would be assigned to America’s literal ‘flowering’ as a society while undergoing the single largest transformation to middle class existence that the world has ever seen.

There is no mistaking the cooperative spirit of a time when huge numbers of American men and women returned from war and thence assigned themselves the task of making a better world for their children and those who would follow. The economic expansion was immense and substantial, and it was inclusive. A grateful world gave more than a few benefits to these returning heroes who had laid so much on the line for an indeterminate period of time. The juxtaposition of a grateful public at every remove – the soldiers returned with their undoubted maturation under fire – which often conflicted with the emotional remnants which could lead to the tempting madness which war always demands. Local attitudes were extremely healthy and helpful for these now ex-soldiers. A complex Post War individual psychology included equal parts gratitude and the imprint of mortal fear on the psyches of these men who experienced the massive destructive power of insane warfare first hand. They had seen the raging beast – with a direct vision that stares into the Abyss and comes away somewhat surprised at having survived while other more deserving’ persons decidedly did not. Soldiers often refer to walking through the devastated cities and plains of Europe or Japan in a transforming wonderment at what had just happened. The smell alone never really left their dreams. The savagery of war was never in brighter display than the killing fields, the camps and ovens of World War 2.

Owensboro in the late 40’s and early 50’s was just a few years into the next “Normal”. The business and economic climate of the day was invariably optimistic – to a fault, in fact. New businesses were devoted to new technologies such as the new “Television”, appliances like washers and dryers, or dedicated to the modern and yearly updated automobiles which graduated into wild realms of chrome and powerful motoring whimsy as they so famously evolved. Highways were being laid out in mind-bending numbers for unheard of stretches of miles, seemingly daily. Increasing numbers of technological achievements produced astounding technological wonders almost weekly which came to define the era even more forcefully. Lawn mowers, record-players, tape recorders – indeed, recording equipment of all kinds including homemade movie technology – lent an air of anticipation to everyday events. Even space and what it contained – or did not – arrived on the local radar.

But perhaps above all, the period dealt with an amazing graduation as a culture from the semi-rural isolation of the earlier American Historical Epoch into a world of power and influence in the larger sphere, bringing the world closer to us all in theory and action, but also at the ground level where the new technologies made a seamless transition of delivering the world to our living rooms. It was a period of moral certitude and confidence; a period of living accomplishments available to increasing numbers of persons; a period of the literal expansion of possibility and optimism and it contained the seeds of an unparalleled social justice.

Owensboro’s gift following all the social progress and economic acceleration became devoted to its youth. Profoundly safe, modestly devout in religion, commercially mature, Owensboro of that era produced open children in love with life, enabled by mature adults exhausted by the conflicts of war, a Depression, the Dust Bowl, and they were bent hard. They were very much collectively into the task of forming a better society. A society whose most general aspect was a primary focus on its youth. A city which came to stress education provided committed teachers, counselors and school boards who were not confused about the role education played in a good society. Local high schools developed an exciting and excellent reputation for producing college graduates and highly intelligent youngsters. Standards set at the level of education have thus decidedly become yet another almost unique asset amidst a set of communities separated by small increments of accomplishment and the fear or the welcoming of futuristic aspirations.

The consistent ideals about the future of the United States at this time the bore the intuitive understanding of the famous Confucius quote: “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If it is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children.”

Of course, the entire nation was undergoing a similar eruption of commerce and education. Enthusiasm carried over from the successful war effort and the much-anticipated return of her fighters and production workers here at home became a well-designed, government-enhanced expansion of unique vintage. It resulted in the largest expansion of the middle class ever seen on Earth.

I have always realized how the Ohio River and its astoundingly abundant traffic over a few hundred years introduced a novel worldview to an essentially conservative, mixed semi-urban, semi-rural population. Owensboro’s establishment of a Bourbon Industry was a natural congruence of having a corn crop in such abundance in the flat river basin surrounding the river, combined with a ready method of shipment, right out the front door, as it were. Indeed, with crops and grains, tobacco and bourbon, Owensboro had a unique and enviable position as an exporter.

The profusion of ultimately creative and fabulously crafted pre Civl War luxury Paddle Wheeler riverboats helped produce an urban energy. In the post-Civil War era, farming loomed large as a saving grace for the lean times following all the destruction and the ruin of large swaths of the South. Manufacturing appeared in some abundance before the turn of the century and lasted until today as an economic mover in Owensboro. The river has a million tales and it’s gigantic mystery supplies a locally reverent poetry. The fishing is not bad either.

Eons of almost yearly delivered new silt and loam soil from the recurring flooding of the river draining the entire Northern and Midwestern geography of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky helped produce a farming cornucopia, perfect for corn and now for soybeans. The climate is also inherently designed to successfully grow crops with a pretty dependable regular summer rainfall. That recurring flooding made this area of the Ohio somewhat ‘Nile-like’, with its consistent regeneration of the soil growing medium. Fresh new soils and silt are sent down the mighty mile-wide river and they drop in place. Vegetables for an enormous crowd of gardeners were produced throughout the city and countryside. Canning and pickling joined with the hickory barbecue industry, to produce incredibly great tasting and healthy meals.

For long months during the growing season, Owensboroans traded veggies and fruit or simply gave the surpluses away so as not to waste any. In other words, even the city was semi-rural, and especially during hard times. Gardening remains an obvious passion even to this day in a town so appreciative of Nature’s goods. Owensboro is a City of Trees to this day. Stately, mature Oaks, Elms, Catalpa’s – you name it, even Kentucky Coffee Trees! – they grace the city as a gorgeous vertical necklace.

There was even a beautifully spitfire 100 pound lady who lived alone in a huge house on the main drag – Frederica – who adored her gigantic and gorgeously stately Sassafrass Tree out in her front yard. When the City arrived to reroute Frederica and widen the street into a main drag, she stood between her Sassafrass and the bulldozer, shotgun in hand. Her unrelenting stand made her famous and a locally acknowledged heroine when they rerouted the excavations. It is – or at least was (Ice Storms did their worst) – the world’s largest Sassafrass.

Tobacco became every bit as adapted to this climate and a bursting industry surrounded it as time went on – even as it became a restricted crop, and thus even more valuable. But it was always extremely profitable, if more labor intensive than corn, beans or grain. Early on, Owensboro burley tobacco was sent down the river to places such as Havana, Cuba and New Orleans for cigar making. Hundreds of tons were exported, all known for their high quality,

At some point in the 50’s, oil was also discovered in sufficient quantity locally to sustain its own mini industry. Wealth was quietly attached to these discoveries as the crude simply kept coming in steady supply for years and decades of time. Attendant industries found the centrality of Owensboro’s relative geographical location perfect for establishing businesses devoted to such things as pipeline transmission, sending oil and gas along the many pipe routes abounding in this geography, up to and including today. The forging and production of steel became as huge as the raw supplies could be easily enough delivered and transported via water and overland over the new highways. The World’s Largest Shovel also plied its tasks nearby as coal produced from strip-mining was easily enough accessed, ripped from the ground in monstrous quantities in more remote sections of the Owensboro’s own – and nearby counties.

The more modern city’s manufacturing base included the locally very lucrative General Electric’s near-entire light bulb production and the ever-evolving patents gained from the GE vacuum tube research teams based in Owensboro. The general manufacturing base of Owensboro, which had once included the literal production of an automobile for a couple of failed years – the Ames Automobile – was a hugely contributing labor factor. Owensboro therefore became a scene comprising an extremely well-rounded totality of economic sectors which not only settled employment issues, but which also included an intellectual class of literal inventors. Literally hundreds of patents were gained by these GE Researchers in all phases. Some brilliant children were produced from the families of the GE research teams. Hundreds of patents were awarded from the work of these inventive individuals, gaining huge credit for the burgeoning GE brand and products.

Socially, Owensboro’s self-possession was never particularly snooty, although it – like all Southern towns – suffered from the racial disconnect which also defined this era with a less-appealing tone. The literal Uncle Tom’s Cabin of literary fame sits not 5 miles away from downtown Owensboro. The story was told by the ‘real’ Uncle Tom, Josiah Henson, whose story was so captivating to Harriet Beecher Stowe that she penned the incredibly popular and very evocative book. Sent to his brother’s plantation by his owner, Isaac Riley, Henson became a model slave and overseer of the slaves on a farm in Owensboro’s eastern fringe, until he bolted for Canada in 1830. All that remains of the plantation now is an historical marker on Highway 60, hard by the tiny hamlet of Maceo. Incredibly, there is a huge number of Owensboroans who discover this anew all the time, but usually later in life owing to the scarcity of local pride for the institution of slavery itself. Producing a noteworthy and laudable crowd of players on the world stage, from Pulitzer Prize winners to Broadway and Opera stars, authors, editors, military notables and professional athletes, Owensboro itself regards these graduates with pride. By appreciating the many accomplishments of its native sons and daughters, a proud city could pose as a place where “anything could happen” and actually be accurate. As many have noted, Owensboro has quietly produced an almost outsized representative crowd of over- and high-achieving folks in many separate spheres.

We are all now aware of Jack Hicks’ fascination with Miller Field and his favorite Pro Team, the Oilers. We understand his avid interest which also resulted in making himself as indispensable as possible for the crew running things. Jack was inherently taking notes on organizational politics and the functioning of organizations. These characteristics would find purchase shortly in a way no one could have foreseen.

Upon graduating, Jack became interested in the Jaycee’s, joining this growing association on his return to Owensboro, yet still a fair distance away from undertaking the coaching and teaching which defined his ultimate moments later. Jack’s focus centered on acquiring experience in organizational matters, later helping his friend Wendell Ford make a breathtaking run to the Presidency of the National Jaycee’s, complete with backroom dealing which absolutely resembled politics. But this followed a few other noteworthy events the young and ambitious Jack Hicks experienced in a life filled with many accomplishments as an adult and especially as a young adult.

The Sportscenter

When the freshly graduated Jack was looking for work, the Owensboro Sportscenter had just been constructed, a magnificent Arena at the time featuring an edifice holding nearly 6,500-7,000 screaming fans as well as club facilities for youth under the bleachers (concession areas). It also had a huge public swimming pool. It was a huge step for the town. For kids growing up in Owensboro after its construction the Sportscenter instituted a familiarity with the pool on an intimate level. Not only functioning as a major source for recreational swimming for young kids, always completely packed all Summer, but also classes in lifesaving and swimming in general were a major force in Owensboro’s youngsters’ physical educations. The Sportscenter Swimming Pool was the major form of summer recreation for the Owensboro’s youth at the time. It is also otherwise noteworthy – and terribly unreported – that a pool was also constructed for African American children, on 5th Street, which served the same function for them, just separately. America was still far away from racial sensitivity, and Owensboro was no game changer as yet. Marvelous athletes and otherwise talented and beautiful people in the black community were miles away as yet from complete social acceptance.

Also extremely well-attended was the Youth Center below the stands of the Sportscenter, a sort of Boys and Girls club which preceded the eventual Parks and Rec-run summer open parks which eventually spread to 8 different locations. A marvelous break from the hot Summers of the Ohio valley, the Sportscenter was a fabulous addition to the lives and recreations of the growing little town. Ping Pong, checkers, some baseball nearby and a cluster of group events were a part of the recreational package and was a monstrous success. Kids had places to go.

In 1950, after 3 years of teaching and coaching, Jack was approached by local home and commercial builder Bill Thompson about taking over the management of the recently built Owensboro Sportscenter, home of local Kentucky Wesleyan University basketball games as well as Owensboro Catholic and Owensboro Senior High School. The Sportscenter was – or would be – the very new and attractive site of many Owensboro cultural events requiring seating for substantial crowds of up to 6.500.

One of the biggest attractions at the time was Pro Wrestling. Monday nights, 1,000 local fans would pack the Sportscenter to watch the wrestlers have at it. It was for this reason that Scotty Williams – himself a local whose wife was on the Owensboro City Council – and who also wrestled himself, was named Administrator over the bookings, maintenance and all general affairs of the business end of the Sportscenter.

In a matter of weeks, however, Scotty expressed his displeasure and the sense that he was a bit overmatched as so many events clashed with his wrestling dates in Nashville and other points of the wrestling compass. He asked out of the position and the 3-person board assigned Bill Thompson, the owner of the company who built the Sportscenter and local home builder,  the task of finding a qualified candidate for the position. Bill took a chance, asking Jack if he would like to take over all aspects of running the place.

The position was a fabulous challenge, being so new and potentially central to the city’s pulse and offering such relatively exciting personal connections. The challenge for a young man with a Journalism and business background and the energy to make it something special was stimulating and eye-opening. Jack was delighted to accept. It was an offer out of left field – to a position whose potential which waved itself in front of Jack like a brilliant red flag. He relished the challenge as well as the role itself. There would always be a certain level of acceptance into the business and political community of Owensboro which accompanied this position. This was a natural networker’s fondest dream.

Thompson’s – and the board’s – selection of Jack seems to have been a prescient choice. Jack really bent into the challenge. He immediately saw the potentials in a multitude of ways. His creative running of the Sportscenter would become one of his own personal greatest accomplishments. He treasured the position for reasons which we will understand as we become more acquainted with the times.

Jack cultivated connections among the real “players” in local regional and national entertainment and colleges. He soon placed an “Owensboro Sportscenter” ad in an important entertainment magazine out of Memphis, describing the Sportscenter and the town and drawing the attention of various individuals who sought venues like Owensboro to offer events such as the Bob Hope Show, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and even Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry stars. Major promoters such as Early Maxwell out of Memphis took notice and contacted Jack. Abe Saperstein of the Harlem Globetrotters got in touch. Agents for the famous were on the line for young 24 year old Jack Hicks and he responded with an optimistic hello and a sales pitch of his own which was as honest as it was appealing.

Young Jack also saw opportunity in the crazed importance of the sport of basketball among both the local Kentucky populous as well as that of the urban patch of Evansville, Indiana, a mere 35 miles to the West, who were experiencing a heady love affair with their own local’s burgeoning power in the Division 2 level of college hoops. Basketball games were extremely well-attended for the local high school rivalries, their end of season tournaments and the home games at the collegiate level of Kentucky Wesleyan. Owensboro has and always had a love affair with basketball as well as baseball.

Jack and Bill Thompson – a reasonably close contact of Adolph Rupp – conspired to ask the University of Kentucky to schedule a game or two where their star player – (“Little Cliffy”) Cliff Hagan – was from and on whose basketball team he played, memorably winning a state championship at Owensboro. Rupp consented. What was remarkable about this were the crowds. University of Kentucky fans absolutely streamed into Owensboro, delighted at the venue and watching their team compete at heady levels in an arena far closer than the long drives involving trips to Lexington. The crowds were immense.

Jack occasionally laughed and called the Sportscenter “The House That Cliff Hagan Built” because of the games hosted at this Western venue of the state, beginning with a game with national power Bradley University. The University of Kentucky played a total of 5 “Home” games in Owensboro – including “conference games” with Ole Miss and Mississippi State – with Hagan featured, drawing an average of 7.000 fans per game. Bill Thompson’s relationship with UK coach Adolph Rupp resulted in Rupp’s teams happily paying visits to All American Hagan’s hometown in a brilliant advertising coup which cemented Owensboro’s passion for UK basketball for decades to come. The head count resulted in substantial revenue for the new enterprise.

Next up was Evansville. Yet another fanatical fan base for basketball, the University of Evansville of the late 40’s and early 50’s was a very legitimate Small College (Division 2 at the time) power, winning national championships and producing future professionals such as Jerry Sloan. They also filled the arena during ensuing years of a very – extremely!! –  focused rivalry with Owensboro’s Kentucky Wesleyan University, forming a focal point of national small college basketball significance for decades to come. The stadium was always packed to the rafters for these intense rivalry games, drawing average crowds of 6,500-7,000 of screaming partisans. It was an era of basketball greatness, in truth, with future pros and amazing individual and team performances the standard rather than the exception.

Jack had conspired with University of Evansville officials to schedule some home games for The Aces – who, at that time, were bereft of a facility large enough to house their rising numbers of fans. The cars from the Evansville fans on the way into Owensboro would stretch long and patient, awaiting the crossing of the Toll Bridge to get into Owensboro, across the Ohio. An interesting side effect of drawing the large and fanatic Evansville basketball crowds early in the Sportscenter’s history dealt with the long-term bond payments for the Glover Cary Bridge connecting Kentucky and Indiana leading from the Indiana side to downtown Owensboro. Its debt was retired early owing to this basketball and entertainment package as car upon car streamed into town to watch their own local heroes. The Sportscenter experience looms high on Jack’s list of favorite experiences. His stories of that era are full of incredible people and memories. Kitty Wells, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Harlem Globetrotters and Jack’s close and personal relationship with Globetrotter founder and manager Abe Saperstein are at the top.

His office was roomy and well positioned within the confines of the arena, with easy access down a ticketed fan entry/hall to the office itself on the side, then continuing to the guts of the arena itself. There was a very private office for himself, a larger meeting room for groups of people, and Jack’s position included a secretary and Girl Friday, Mary Wolfe, a pleasant and affable and very efficient help mate. Mary was married to the Player Coach of the Owensboro Oilers, Wally Lance, and she proved to be a real and vital contributor to the success of the enterprise.

Many of the events themselves provide a scrolling list of brilliant and amazing stories packed so solidly into the 3 years Jack ran the Sportscenter.

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