AVON PARK — Everyone fortunate enough to have attended school remembers an outstanding teacher or coach. Few will be lucky enough to remember Avon Park High School’s coach Don Hickman.
For over four decades, Hickman touched the lives of young athletes in sports, ranging from football, wrestling, track, cross country, softball, tennis and weight lifting. This is over and above teaching physical education, health, shop and six years of special education.
As a coach and a teacher, Hickman spent 40 years going beyond the classroom and playing field to prepare his athletes for the next step in their lives.
“He’s a great motivator of young people,” Chet Brojek, the school’s former athletic director, said. “Cross country and weight lifting aren’t glory sports. They’re just a lot of hard work. Don was instrumental in helping the kids succeed.”
In just one example of the lengths to which Hickman is willing to go, on Aug. 4, he was driving Jaheon Mintas (“a linebacker and really good kid”) to his new school, Graceland University, in Lamoni, Iowa, to settle him in.
Hickman, as it happens, is an alumnus of the school. Graceland, he said, has an excellent athletic program. Because he knows members of the administration staff and has experienced the usefulness of the school’s structured style himself, he never hesitates to recommend it to his young athletes.
He also pulls no punches when preparing his college-bound students about what lies ahead.
“This is what you’re going to have to do,” he said he advises, “you need to learn how to study. And remember, it’s going to be cold, and you’re going to be homesick.” He paused, considering what he just said. “I stress that life matters. If you do these things, life falls into place.”
He most loves creating opportunities. “Seeing kids going to college, into the service, some into pro-sports or working as trainers, deputies or police officers” gives him a thrill, he said.
Hickman has been married to Beverly Hickman for 43 years. She teaches biology at Sebring High School. They have two daughters, a son, four grandsons, and one granddaughter.
He arrived from a small town south of Columbus, Ohio after coaching several years in the North. He and his wife longed for a more comfortable climate and scouted Florida, setting roots in Avon Park. He taught at Avon Elementary School before transferring to the high school and starting his coaching career.
“It was a little rough coming in with a Yankee accent,” he laughed, “surrounded by southern twang.”
Bill Jarrett of Bill Jarrett Ford coached Avon Park High School football with Hickman in the late 80s; both were volunteers. Jarrett coached the defensive line, Hickman the offense line.
Jarrett fondly remembers the time the men practiced their lines against each other. “Those were great times,” Jarrett said, working with Hickman under Hopi Rewis and Ronnie and Mort Jackson. “What a gem of a person,” he added. “Don was passionate about helping kids see beyond Highlands County and education to the future.”
Brojek agrees. “I noticed it,” he said. “Don was steadfast in checking grades and behavior.”
Hickman initiated several programs, and kept others from dying — starting the weight-lifting program; with Lucy Derkman, starting the first girls’ softball league; and stepping into Brojeck’s impossibly large shoes when he retired as cross country coach 15 years ago.
Always, however, he preferred teaching to coaching, and will teach for another two years before retiring altogether.
“After 40 years of coaching, going to all the games and proms and etcetera, I know so many people, and their parents. I get in an elevator and know someone there.”