Lines of Character

By Kate Bast, Lisa Bauer, Marni McEntee & Rachel Werner  |  Photographed by Hillary Schave

Meet four strong women of a certain vintage who have lived lives less ordinary, in and through times that were anything but. They share lessons for us all.

Fannie Hicklin | Retired Theater Professor | Age: 98

Fannie Hicklin says what she thinks and means what she says. At the age of 98, her life experience spans almost a century. And even after all this time, she still considers many of her fondest memories as being from childhood and her parents’ positive examples of living with purpose—and longevity. “Yes I grew up during segregation, but ours was a happy family. My parents always stressed the importance of being aware of your surroundings and what is happening around you, but also remember that you are fine,” she recalls.

Arriving into the world on the Talladega College campus in Alabama would be a foreshadowing of the integral role academics would play throughout her life. Her birth happened on the cusp of changing times, and from the outset her parents represented two sides of that coin. Her mother never received an education beyond the ninth grade, the highest level of education provided to black children where she grew up—and in stark contrast to her father, a Northern transplant and Talladega College graduate and manager of the institution’s 120-acre farm and dairy operation. Hicklin says, “That campus was my home for 21 years and I first became curious about languages looking at my father’s old Latin texts.”

Later at her father’s alma mater, Hicklin pursued an undergraduate degree in linguistics— focused on French, German and Spanish—before teaching high school English and foreign languages classes for several years in Mississippi and then moving to Ann Arbor to obtain a master’s degree in speech at the University of Michigan. Her love of teaching and learning spurred her on to eventually receive a doctorate in speech from UW-Madison.

“No matter where I have lived, I have never forgotten who I am or that there is a race problem in this country. I have faced racism my whole life, but have never let it consume me. Instead I chose the nonviolent path of protest which involves being very good at what I do so that people can not use me to fulfill their misguided ideas of what all blacks are like,” she reflects.

Hicklin’s strong sense of character also aided her during a 25-year tenure at the UW Whitewater as a professor of oral interpretation, acting and directing. She points out that the theatrical arts were once considered more of an “extracurricular activity” of the formal discipline of speech. And Hicklin feels fortunate to have been on staff at the university when the College of Arts and Communication was established. “People have very strong feelings about music and the visual arts. One key lesson I had to work with students to recognize is that this isn’t something you do alone,” she says. The university honored Hicklin’s fierce commitment to student success and overwhelming talent in the performing arts by renaming the campus studio theater after her in 1996.

Thus now, professionally and personally, Hicklin seems quite pleased with the legacy she will leave behind—as the first African-American faculty member at UW-Whitewater; as a member of the local First Congregational Church for over 50 years; as the mother to a daughter who confronted equity issues as a manager at the Madison Equal Opportunity Commission; and as a woman with the lasting satisfaction of knowing she spent her life “constantly working to make conditions better” just as her father had taught her. – Rachel Werner


DO IT WELL OR NOT AT ALL Based on a favorite quote: “Be the task great or small. Do it well or not at all.”
BE AWARE IN LIFE, BUT ALSO HAVE A GOOD TIME  When I traveled to other countries, I think I never had any problems because I always enter into a situation prepared to accept the other culture.
DON’T CRITICIZE HARSHLY, BUT WITH TACT Don’t get carried away by “discussion,” especially if you’re the person with “the training.”


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