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The Surprising Mrs. Hicks

Story by
Nancy Joseph
January 2019
portrait photo of Opal Hicks

A former colleague describes Opal Hicks as "the cornerstone of the department for so many years."

In her 44 years as staff in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences (SPHSC), Opal Hicks was always “Mrs. Hicks” to her colleagues. As program assistant and graduate secretary for the department, she was caring but unassuming, helping guide graduate students through numerous bureaucratic challenges. She kept in touch with co-workers and former students after retiring in 1995, but no one anticipated her final gesture of generosity: through a bequest, Mrs. Hicks donated $468,000 to the department — one of the largest single gifts from a former College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) staff member to any CAS unit.  

“It’s stunning,” says Nancy Alarcon, principal lecturer and director of the UW Speech and Hearing Clinic, who worked with Mrs. Hicks for many years. “We were all just blown away when we heard about the gift.”

Upon reflection, says Alarcon, the bequest makes sense. Mrs. Hicks was devoted to the students in the department. Years after a student graduated, she could still recall details of their lives with astounding accuracy. “She made it a really special part of her job to know people. She was the key to a lot of stories of student success,” says Alarcon, who describes her former colleague as “a gem” and “the cornerstone of the department for so many years.”

Beyond her role as UW staff, Mrs. Hicks had a passion for music. She began piano lessons at age 6, and later taught piano in Los Angeles before moving to Seattle in 1951. Soon after her arrival, she became a charter member of the Seattle chapter of the Sweet Adelines, an all-female singing group that performs everything from show tunes to pop songs to patriotic tunes in four-part harmony. She joined the group at age 27, performing with the Sweet Adelines for more than six decades — the group’s longest active member in the Northwest — and competing in many competitions. 

Mrs. Hicks’s legacy of connecting with students and watching out for them will continue in perpetuity. ...For the department, it was a wonderful surprise.

Mrs. Hicks died in February 2016, but her connection to the University will continue thanks to her thoughtful decision to include the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences in her will. As she directed, funds from the bequest will support student scholarships in the department — a fitting tribute to her dedication to SPHSC students. 

“Mrs. Hicks’s legacy of connecting with students and watching out for them will continue in perpetuity,” says Alarcon. “She obviously planned this gift, but for the department it was a wonderful surprise.”

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To learn how you can support the University with a planned gift like Opal Hicks, contact the Office of Planned Gifts at 206-685-1001 or giftinfo@uw.edu.