Jeff Hicken leaves lasting legacy among ag educators and FFA members

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
In 2003, Sauk Prairie ag teacher Jeff Hicken's students built him an FFA motorcycle. The late Matt Anderson, second from left, went on to use the motorcycle in 2007 for his retiring address as the State FFA President.

BJ Chrisler was slated to be in Madison to interview for a post on the 2008-2009 Wisconsin State FFA Officer team, only there was a problem. Sauk County, at the time, was one of six counties under a state of emergency following unprecedented flooding after more than 14 inches of rain fell in eight days.

"The bridge connecting our farm to town had been washed away," Chrisler said. "Then I got a call from Jeff Hicken saying 'Chrisler, if I need to call Gov. Doyle and get a National Guard chopper in there I will. You will make it to Madison today and you will be the next State FFA Officer from Sauk Prairie'."

Luckily Chrisler made it to Madison and spent the next two years serving Wisconsin FFA under the mentorship of Jeff Hicken.

Chrisler, like countless others across the state of Wisconsin and beyond are mourning the loss of Hicken who passed away on June 18 at the age of 47. At the time of his death, the town of Byron native was serving as Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources Education Consultant and State FFA Advisor with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, a post he had held for the past 15 years. 

"The biggest void I currently feel in my heart is knowing that other students will no longer be able to build a deep impactful connection with Mr. Hicken," Chrisler said. "Obviously, his legacy lives on through his boys (Cole and Drew) and the many students that he impacted."

A road almost not taken

Hicken and his brother, John, grew up in rural Fond du Lac County and attended the Lomira School District. His FFA advisor and ag teacher Dan Robinson recalled how Hicken was looking for a job.

"He got tired of bagging groceries at the Piggly Wiggly and asked if I knew of another job. A farmer who lived across the highway was looking for someone to milk cows. To think he almost went in a different direction," Robinson said. "I was so proud of his success and to be able to watch him add to it. First as a State FFA Officer, then graduating from UW River Falls as an ag instructor and then teaching at Sauk Prairie. I was always so proud to let everyone know that Jeff was one of mine. He was one of my shining stars and always will be." 

Passion for agriculture

Cheryl Zimmerman, Wisconsin FFA executive director, worked closely with Hicken, especially with the state's FFA officer team. She says Hicken was blue and gold inside and out.

"His life was surrounded by agricultural education and FFA. ...He had a passion about educating people about agriculture and helping students grow and succeed," she said. "He connected with so many people including advisors, alumni and sponsors and left a huge impact through his leadership and involvement in so many different capacities."

Wisconsin FFA Executive Director Cheryl Zimmerman runs onto the stage with the 2017-18 state officers as State FFA Adviosr Jeff Hicken is introduced during the sixth session of the Wisconsin FFA Convention on June 13 in Madison.

While Hicken had a resume of accomplishments a mile long, Zimmerman says many will remember his human connection with people and sense of humor.

"We will remember his playful spirit and his passion for the work he did and the people around him," she said.

Gov. Tony Evers worked with Hicken at the Department of Public Instruction and says he loved making school visits with his former colleague.

"The kids and teachers we met recognized his caring demeanor immediately," Evers said, adding that among his cherished memories include attending FFA Conventions.

Personal connection was genuine

Chrisler said what made Hicken stand out from the rest of his colleagues was his 'ability to immerse himself in your life'.

"He treated each win and accomplishment as if you were his own child. When I was selected as State FFA President, I remember hugging Hicken and he was crying, really crying," Chrisler recalled. "I am not from an emotional family, and I remember at that moment, it solidified Mr. Hicken as my role model. He was so proud of me as if he was my father."

Chrisler says Hicken had him in his sights long before he entered his classroom.

"I was working the Active Strivers 4-H petting zoo at the Cow Chip Festival and he came up to me and said, "Chrisler, one day you are going to outgrow 4-H and come be one of my FFA officers." I'm sure it was neat for him to look at a kid that he met as a 4th grader at a petting zoo, and then fast forward 10 years and here I am now the State FFA President," Chrisler said.

BJ Chrisler, a former student of Jeff Hicken, says the late Hicken was a role model and had a lasting impact on his life.

Brad Anderson and his brother Matt Anderson were former students of Hicken's at Sauk Prairie. Matt served as President of the Sauk Prairie FFA Chapter and went on to serve as State FFA Sentinel in 2005-2006 (Hicken's last year at Sauk Prairie) and State FFA President in 2006-2007. 

"Mr. Hicken was a great man and I can't thank him enough for being the role model that he was for my brother and me," Brad Anderson wrote on Hicken's CaringBridge page.

Matt was tragically killed in a farm accident in August 2007 - just months away from receiving his American FFA Degree.

"One of the hardest experiences was losing Matt," said Chrisler. "Jeff and Matt were so close. Matt was charismatic and could own a room just like Jeff."

The best for everyone

Chrisler attributes his success in life largely to Jeff Hicken.

"He believed in me, every step of the way, and when I didn't want to do something, he would always say, "If not now, then when." He always held me accountable and was the first great example of what it looked like to be a true servant leader. To give until it hurt for the greater good and to help others grow along the way," Chrisler said. 

Current State FFA President Joe Schlies says Hicken was a man who wanted the very best for everyone.

"One of his top priorities while working with him was ensuring that every student had the same opportunities," Schlies said. "He especially believed all students should have access to building their own Supervised Agricultural Experience, a key component to the three-component model of agriculture education."

Schlies says Hicken's witty and caring personality will be greatly missed by everyone in the agricultural education and FFA community.

MORE: After a year hiatus, FFA members ready for in-person convention this summer

"And while our hearts may be heavy with this great loss, they are also full knowing that his legacy will never be forgotten," he added.

Hicken's presence will be sorely missed at this year's 92nd Wisconsin FFA Convention, set to open on July 6 as an in-person event. State officers reveled in high-fiving Hicken as he ran across the stage following the introduction of the serving officer team.

Schlies says he and his teammates are planning to honor Hicken during the convention for his dedication to agricultural education and FFA.

Cole Hicken is joined by his parents, Jeff and Shari Hicken and younger brother, Drew, at the Waupun FFA banquet this spring.

Close connection

Waupun Area Jr./Sr. High School ag teacher and FFA advisor Tari Costello has a special connection to the Hicken family. Not only is she a colleague of both Jeff and his wife, Shari, who oversees ag education at the district's agricultural charter school SAGES, she works with the couple's sons, Cole and Drew, who are active in the FFA program.

Costello, who refers to Hicken as the 'heart and soul of Wisconsin Agriculture Education', says he lead with a genuine passion for the people in the agriculture education world.

"His smile, quick wit and willingness to challenge everyone to be better made him the kind of leader that educators and FFA members appreciated," she said.

Costello says Jeff and Shari's passion for agriculture and leadership development is obvious in their sons. Cole recently graduated and will head to UW Madison to pursue a degree in Agricultural Economics. He will also receive his State Degree next week at the convention along with being recognized as a State Proficiency winner in the area of Landscape Management. 

Cole shared his thoughts on his father's influence in his life during Hicken's memorial service held last weekend at Waupun Area Jr./Sr. High School. 

"My father was by far my greatest role model. Growing up I decided I wanted to be just like him. As I got older, I began to realize he wasn't just an amazing person in my eyes, but an amazing person in the eyes of many," Cole said. "He was my Number 1 supporter in every aspect of my life. He pushed me everyday to be a better human than I was in the past. He left us a legacy of greatness and I will never forget everything he taught me and the impact he had on so many students, community members and more."