Fannie Hicklin, the fierce and beloved theater professor who became the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s first African American faculty member and who left a creative legacy that both transformed and transcended campus, has died at the age of 101.
She passed away Friday at her home in Madison, Wisconsin, according to her daughter, Ariel Ford. A memorial service will be held in the spring.
During her tenure at UW-Whitewater, Hicklin taught speech and theater courses, directed more than 50 productions, and earned the respect of students and colleagues alike for her passion for the arts and dedication to teaching.
“It’s difficult for any of us to imagine a world without Fannie Hicklin,” said Chancellor Emeritus Richard Telfer. “She was clearly devoted to UW-Whitewater, not just in her time on the faculty, but even in retirement. From her attendance at theater productions, to participating in scholarship fundraisers, to helping guide the College of Arts and Communication forward as a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board — she gave of herself in countless ways.”
Born in Alabama in 1918 on the campus of Talladega College, where her father taught, Hicklin grew up in the racially segregated south. She taught at public schools and universities throughout the region and eventually made her way to Wisconsin, where she earned her Ph.D. at UW-Madison.
Hicklin arrived at UW-Whitewater in 1964, the same year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. In a recent interview, she spoke proudly of the welcoming and supportive culture on campus.
“Not once did I feel any type of discrimination by faculty, staff or students’ parents. I never thought about being the first black professor there because I was treated like anybody else.”
The hiring committee “cared a lot about the teachers, and really looked at people for their qualifications. They weren’t concerned with your race,” she said.
“There’s often a great burden placed on people who are blazing a trail,” said Eileen M. Hayes, dean of the College of Arts and Communication.
Hicklin embraced the responsibility with courage, heart and intellectual gusto — providing a diverse intellectual perspective.
“The fact that she was the first African American faculty member means a great deal to successive faculty of color,” said Hayes. “It’s a great reassurance when members of your group have gone before you so that you aren’t ‘the first.’”
Whether in the classroom or on the stage, students deeply respected Hicklin and the professional discipline she tried to instill in them.
“She was firm, but always caring,” said alumna Leslie LaMuro, who earned a B.A. in theatre. “I remember she had superb diction and wanted the same for her students. Breathing exercises and keeping the body in shape were part of our training. She encouraged us to be good listeners — to be in the moment.”
In addition to teaching speech and theatre, Hicklin served as the associate dean of faculties, director of affirmative action, and chair of the Department of Theatre/Dance. She established a summer theater program and a touring children’s theater program.
Hicklin loved UW-Whitewater and quickly would let people know it, her daughter said.
“Despite efforts of other colleges and universities to recruit her, she remained dedicated and committed to the university,” she said.
Hicklin’s service extended beyond the boundaries of the UW-Whitewater campus. She served on a number of volunteer boards, including the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Board of Curators, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, and WHA Madison Public Radio.
In 1970, she received UW-Whitewater’s highest teaching honor — the W.P. Roseman Excellence in Teaching award. The Hicklin Studio Theatre in the Greenhill Center of the Arts was dedicated and renamed to honor Hicklin on Founders Day, April 21, 1996.
In 2016, Hicklin — clad in a purple hat and gloves — served as the grand marshal of the Homecoming parade, smiling and waving vigorously to people along Main Street. A year and a half later, she donned purple once again to ring in UW-Whitewater’s 150th anniversary at the Purple and White Gala, held at the University Center. At the event, everyone in attendance sang “Happy Birthday” to her in honor of her 100th birthday.
Her legacy also lives on through the Fannie Hicklin Theatre Education Scholarship, given to a junior or senior majoring in theatre who is well-rounded in both technical and performance areas. Memorial contributions can be made through the UW-Whitewater Foundation, Inc.
At last year’s scholarship celebration, Hicklin reflected on her love for campus.
“Whitewater is very dear to me. I am so proud to tell people about it.”