When he came to the Virginia Baptist Children’s Home to live, 12-year-old Larry Hicks couldn’t wait to get away. Then he grew up and came back to be activities director for 42 years.
This month Hicks stopped driving the bus, planning activities and working with at-risk kids when he retired from what now is HopeTree Family Services in Salem. In appreciation for all his service, the home named the gym for him.
The announcement on June 8 came as a surprise to Hicks, who knew only he was at a cookout on the campus to celebrate his retirement with 90 staff, Baptist Children’s Home alumni and friends.
“I appreciate the way you loved the kids all these years,” said HopeTree’s Dr. Stephen Richerson, president and executive director. “We hope we’re going to keep seeing him around as a former employee,” he added after presenting Hicks with a retirement gift envelope.
On behalf of alumni, Debbie Huffman Bass presented Hicks with a full-size replica of the brass plaque that will be installed on the gym when Virginia Baptist Children’s Home Alumni get together on June 26.
It says, “In lasting honor of Larry Millburn Hicks whose unparalleled impact on residents of Virginia Baptist Children’s home & Family Services spans his childhood here as a resident and his 42 year career of the Director of Activities, this gymnasium is hereby designated the Larry Hicks Gymnasium and Athletic Center.”
He also received a painting he had admired for years, Bass said. The painting by late staff member Roland Bailey shows the older entrance into the home with the bell tower in the center and Carpenter Cottage on the left. That was “home” for Hicks when he was a teenager who played football at then-Andrew Lewis High School.
He lived at the home from August 1965 to June 1971 when he graduated from ALHS, Hicks said.
The Virginia Baptist Children’s Home that was founded in 1890 as an orphanage and evolved into foster care for young people who needed a stable home life away from their families. Today it provides education for at-risk youth in its HopeTree Academy, foster care in the cottages like those where Hicks lived, and residential care for adults with developmental disabilities.
When he arrived, it was Hicks’ first time away from his family, and he didn’t like being at the Baptist home, he said, but came to love it. That’s why he came back after attending Bluefield College and graduating from Radford.
There were about 250 children at the home in those days, former employee Darr Graham remembered, 16 to 18 to a cottage with houseparents. Graham was the activities director when Hicks got there as a child.
“Back in those days we had chapel,” Graham said. “Kids told Larry he had to dress up in a suit, and he was the only one wearing a suit,” he remembered. “Kids called him ‘Shirley’ which was his sister’s name. If you didn’t get teased at the children’s home, something was wrong with you.”
Graham called Hicks “The best son a man could have.”
Debbie and Gerry Bass came to be houseparents two years after Hicks started work. “Larry and I have been lifelong friends,” said Gerry, who praised Hicks for his patience and tough love for kids.
“I’ve done every kind of activities with the kids – except skydiving. I’ve taught yoga, ceramics, took them on canoe trips,” Hicks said. “Lately I’ve started working more in HopeTree Academy.”
He explained, “I’m going to miss all of it, most of all the kids and the staff.”
Hicks’ wife, Kay, was at the cookout. It was her retirement day from teaching second grade at Glencove Elementary School. Altogether, she taught for 30 years in Roanoke County and 11 years in Botetourt.
The couple lives in North Roanoke County. What does Larry Hicks plan to do now? “Maybe travel a little, spoil the grandkids and send them home.” He and Kay have two children, Derek Hicks and wife Morgan, and Jennifer Taylor and husband Matt, along with grandchildren Jackson, 7, and Emily, 5.
Others at the cookout who praised Hicks’ work with kids were Kay’s sister, Dee King, and husband Fred. “He is a tremendously warm and giving individual,” said Fred. “Nothing fazes him.”
HopeTree’s education consultant Dr. Tommy Barber called Hicks, “one of the most dedicated childcare professionals I’ve ever had the pleasure of being associated with – and one with the most patience.”
When he stood up to say a few words of thanks, Larry Hicks signed off with, “I’m going to miss you and I’ll pray for you every day.”