“Everywhere I look, I see you.”
Those words resonated with Cecil Hicks as he prepared to retire from a post he’d held for 32 years and a town he’d fallen in love with.
A member of Marion Town Council shared that reflection with Hicks in the weeks before he retired at June’s end. For anyone driving on Marion’s roads, drinking a glass of water from a tap in town, or easily crossing a street thanks to a traffic signal’s well-timed sequence, Hicks’ work is evident as it also is in numerous less visible but necessary operations such as planning and zoning.
Hicks wore multiple hats in his career with the town, though he didn’t know about all of them until he’d been on the job a while.
In 1987, Hicks was living in Blacksburg and working as a district engineer with United Cities Gas when he came to Marion for a project. The Roanoke native learned the town engineer was near retirement. An avid hiker to this day, Hicks loved Mt. Rogers and this area. He remembers thinking it could be “a pretty good job.”
He interviewed just before Christmas and started to work for Marion in February 1988.
With a laugh, Hicks remembered he’d been on the job for three days before he learned he was also serving as assistant town manager, zoning administrator and secretary of the planning commission.
A civil engineer, Hicks said he most enjoyed undertaking structural analysis of bridges as well as environmental projects and the hydraulic design of water lines. Most people in civil engineering specialize, Hicks said, but working for the town he got “to do it all.”
“It’s different every day,” he noted.
In his three decades with the town, Hicks said he was part of eight bridge replacement projects. He compared that work to a puzzle in which one piece is essential to the work of another.
The East Chilhowie Street bridge, a wrought-iron Pratt through-truss bridge that is the oldest two-lane iron bridge in Virginia, won his heart. “I fell in love with that bridge,” he said, adding, “It’s so cool.” Built in 1885, the bridge includes truss pins. If any of the pins fail, the entire bridge would fail - a perfect illustration of Hicks’ puzzle analogy.
Water and wastewater also took a good bit of Hicks’ attention. “I’ve renovated every water tank in our system, twice,” he said.
Days before his retirement, he and his wife, Valerie, prepared and served hot dogs, homemade chili and more to many of those with whom Hicks worked. They told stories -- “so many stories,” he said. They laughed recalling that he resembled a cartoon character when a traffic signal shocked him.
He told the staff, “You’re my family.” Hicks expressed gratitude for his co-workers and their working relationships. “Treat your people the best you can and they’ll go to war for you,” he said.
Hicks especially praised Donnie Coley, an environmental engineer who retired from the town earlier this spring after a career of more than 40 years.
Hicks and Coley designed a new sewer plant for the town. They introduced experimental processes that worked exceptionally well and caught the attention of specialists.
Of all the changes, he witnessed in more than three decades, Hicks said, the greatest was the roll out of environmental regulations. “It’s all good,” he said, “but challenging.”
Hicks also had praise for other Marion departments. When he came to Marion, Walmart was being built. Hicks said it turned the downtown into a ghost town. “Then,” Hicks said, “here comes this jolly fellow… and Ken Heath resurrected the downtown.”
He also lauded mayors and council members for their service. He ticked off at least eight names, calling them all great people.
However, he said, “without a doubt, Mayor Helms is the best mayor… a great pillar of the community.”
Hicks said it was hard for him to say goodbye to the council.
It was equally difficult for some of them to bid farewell to Hicks.
Longtime friend and council member Tricia Spencer said, “Cecil’s contribution to the Town of Marion cannot be measured. The vast years of knowledge cannot be calculated. There is no question… how Cecil’s moral and ethical compass points. He does the right way every time. He does not take shortcuts. He believes rules and laws are to be followed, not bent or broken. He is a man of integrity and honor who has served this town for 32 years and always has kept his fiduciary responsibility at the forefront of his actions.”
The guiding light in Hicks’ life is God. “He has directed my life completely…. He has done it all for me…. He has totally sustained me,” he said.
Hicks believes God blessed him with the opportunity to serve Marion. In turn, he said, “I always put the town first. I fell in love with this town…. I felt blessed to have the job I did. I always tried to put my best into it.”
Still, he recently knew it was time for a change. Neil Young’s song “Comes a Time” came to Hicks. His eyes sparkled when a cell call interrupted his reflection, asking him to check out parking on a narrow street. Holding up the phone, he declared, “I turn this in Monday.”
Hicks doesn’t plan on sitting idly in his retirement.
Serving God in the missionary field is on his mind. Noting that he has missionary friends in India and Africa, he said, “I wouldn’t think twice about that.”
Hicks also acknowledged that he has a long honey-do list and he’s still an active cyclist, hiker and backpacker. He’s passionate about photography, shooting for Virginia Wildlife and other publications.
Spencer noted that passion. “Cecil’s love of family, the outdoors in all its beauty, and God show in the many photographs he has plastered on his walls.”
She also noted that Hicks “gives unselfishly to [Boy] Scouts. He is a teacher and a role model for young men of the Scouts and, more importantly, his church.”
Spencer, a trained chef, praised Hicks’ culinary skills. “He is a master with salsa - could be hotter, but it is fought over when it appears.” An avid gardener, he grows his own tomatoes for the dish.
Hicks also loves to fly, and now his son, Luke, is following in his footsteps. Luke has been accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida to pursue a career as a commercial pilot. “We’re all excited about him,” the proud father declared.
Hicks is also proud of his role in Marion’s development. “I’ve been so glad to be part of this community.”
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