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Vestal: Student succeeds despite considerable odds

Jonathon Hicks will graduate from EWU in June at the age of 19. He recently broke his thumb in a pickup game of football. (Dan Pelle)
Jonathon Hicks will graduate from EWU in June at the age of 19. He recently broke his thumb in a pickup game of football. (Dan Pelle)

One February day in 2008, Jonathon Hicks was finishing wrestling practice at East Valley High School and waiting for his mother to pick him up.

Instead, his older sister and her husband showed up. Looks of distress. Something had happened with Jonathon’s father – he’d had a psychotic break and gone on a destructive rampage, alone, through the family home.

“Something snapped,” said Hicks, speaking slowly and carefully, as though still trying to pin down exactly what occurred. “It was … quite the tornado.”

Over the course of the next few hours, and then the next year, Jonathon and his family – his mother, Ruth, and his six brothers and sisters – would struggle to come to terms with the tornado of mental illness that had descended on their father. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Stanley Glen Hicks fought delusions that made him fearful he’d become violent. When he took his meds, he was better. But he didn’t always take his meds.

“It was clear that he was wrestling with delusions at all times,” Hicks said. “Whether they were truth or whether they were not truth.”

Jonathon Hicks was 15 years old, the third-oldest of seven children. Ruth Hicks, formerly a stay-at-home mom who home-schooled her children, went back to work, taking two jobs. His father was sometimes home, sometimes with friends, sometimes hospitalized.

“Jon stood strong that entire year,” Ruth said. “He was 15.”

A sob choked off her words.

“He was 15, and he didn’t get to rebel. He didn’t get to be goofy.”

Focus turns to school

Among the thousands of students who will claim their bachelor’s degrees in the Inland Northwest this spring, it’s likely that none will have gone through the education that Jonathon Hicks has, or been called on to handle the kinds of burdens he’s handled at such a young age.

Now 19 and on the verge of collecting his bachelor’s degree in math, Hicks’ teenage years were filled with turmoil and heartbreak – but also with academic success and growth and an amazing maturity. Hicks graduated from East Valley High School last spring, by which point he was already well into the college credits he needed for a bachelor’s degree. He’d been taking 20-credit loads in the Running Start program, which allows high school students to earn credits toward college. He’ll graduate from Eastern Washington University with a degree in math in June, a year after graduating from high school.

In addition to his school work and family responsibilities, he’s worked at Quizno’s, performed community service at the Union Gospel mission and tutored other students in math. Older students, always. He had planned to go on to Eastern’s master’s program in math, before it was abruptly shut down in February. By then, it was too late for him to apply for the funded positions at other state schools. He was not interested in taking on a lot of student debt.

“I was raised not to go into debt,” he said.

Not that many years ago, Hicks would have told you he didn’t like school. His plans were to get a two-year degree of some kind – perhaps in brick masonry – and go to work. But something had clicked when he was taking pre-calculus. He was good at it. He began to enjoy it. By the time he learned his graduate program had been canceled, he’d done an about-face on school.

“Now, I love it,” he said.

Taking on caretaker role

Jonathon’s father loved to take the family fishing and camping. He’d been a postal clerk for years, following a stint of several years where he tried to make a living playing poker – his years as a “bum,” Jonathon said with a smile. He and the family were members of the Church of God, Seventh Day, and strong in their faith.

As a teenager, Jonathon and his father did not always share interests. Nothing serious, but Jonathon knew that he was not fitting precisely into his father’s mold.

“I would talk about wrestling nonstop and he would talk about the best fishing holes and where we were going to go camping next,” he said. “We just didn’t have the same passions.”

On Jan. 6, 2009, as Jonathon drove to the family’s Newman Lake home around 8:30 in the evening with his little brother, he noticed that the lights at the railroad crossing at Idaho and Trent seemed different. Jonathon, who is colorblind, thought he saw some differences in the typically red lights – he thought he saw blues in there, like emergency lights.

An hour or so later, a man came to the family’s door. A chaplain with the railroad – “a very nice man,” Jonathon remembers. They listened to what he had to say.

“He held my mom,” Jonathon said. “And I called my sisters.”

Glen Hicks had driven onto the railroad tracks, an apparent suicide. Immediately, Jonathon took a caretaking role toward his brothers and sisters. He remembers being relieved that he wasn’t crying that night, because he said he knew they’d need him to be strong. As the family mourned over the next weeks and months, Ruth Hicks said one of their struggles was reconciling their religious beliefs about suicide with what their father had done.

In the end, though, she knew he was sick, and acting out of the fear of what he might do.

“He was delusional,” she said. “He thought he was going to kill the children and me, so he killed himself instead.”

Course becomes clear

When Jonathon Hicks found out in February that his plans to pursue a graduate education in math had been scotched, he began considering other options. What he loved about math was its certainty, its concreteness. Now he found himself considering a different passion: his Christian faith, which he sees as no less concrete than mathematics.

“Once you’re convinced it’s the truth, it’s like a light bulb goes off,” he said. “It’s No. 1 all of a sudden, and I don’t think there’s an option for it to be otherwise.”

He applied for and was accepted to the master’s program in theology at Whitworth University, where he’ll begin in the summer. He’s moved to a small apartment in the heart of West Central, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where he’s been struck by the number of people who need help.

“A lot of these people are hurting and are in many ways desperate for help, physically and, I also think, for truth,” he said.

Ruth Hicks said that since her husband’s death, she’s seen an expansion of empathy and maturity in Jonathon. Not long after moving into his new neighborhood, there was a stabbing; he went to the location of the crime, to see if the people there needed help.

“He’s not somebody that goes by and gawks,” she said. “He’s somebody that goes by, sees a need and goes to help.”

Mature beyond his years

In December, Jonathon got engaged. Like a lot of milestones in his life – his college graduation; his introduction to grief – it’s coming at a young age. But Hicks does not strike you as young, necessarily. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he seems mature beyond his years.

Soon now, schools all over will begin handing out diplomas and honors. Kids will be feted for all different kinds of achievements, but there isn’t a trophy – there aren’t enough trophies – for the range of qualities that Jonathon Hicks represents. For what he’s done, for what he’s had to bear, for how he’s borne it.

He said he might be a pastor, and you have to suspect he’d be a great one.

It’s impossible to plumb the full range of a son’s grief for a father. But Jonathon said that as he has reached certain milestones lately – graduations, engagements – his father’s absence has become a stronger, more poignant presence. He realizes how much his dad’s approval meant to him. How much he has missed it, and how much he will.

“I just wish I could have known him when I was older,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.