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Robert Hickerson, Alaska Legal Services director, dies at 50

By Peter Maassen

The Alaska legal community joined other friends and family to mourn the death on June 9, 2001, of Robert Keith Hickerson, who had served since 1984 as Executive Director of Alaska Legal Services Corporation. Hickerson, 50, succumbed to a recurrent brain tumor, having combated the illness successfully in 1994 to devote over six more good years to his family, his friends, and the legal needs of Alaska’s Natives and indigent people. The uniqueness of his contribution to the public good was recognized last year by a special 2000 "Equal Access to Justice" award from the Alaska Civil Liberties Union.
Hickerson was born the third of seven children to Harold and Katherine Hickerson of Altus, Oklahoma, on October 12, 1950. He received his college and law degrees from the University of Oklahoma and in 1976 began his legal career in the Municipal Public Defender’s Office in Oklahoma City. He next served with Legal Aid of Western Oklahoma, where he was chief attorney of the senior citizens’ division, before becoming executive director of Oklahoma Legal Services Center in 1979.

Hickerson moved to Alaska in 1981 to take up the position of Chief Counsel of ALSC. He became its Executive Director in 1984. According to his long-time friend and colleague Robert Anderson, Hickerson’s vision for ALSC was driven in part by his experiences with Indian land issues in Oklahoma. With the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act entering its second decade, Alaska Natives were recognizing the importance of preparing to maintain the cohesion of Native life and culture even as the restrictions lapsed on the alienation of Native corporation stock. Hickerson early on recognized the importance of ALSC’s role not only in traditional legal services issues such as domestic relations, governmental benefits, and tenants’ rights, but also in the broader issues of tribal sovereignty, subsistence, and Native self-determination. Under his leadership, ALSC developed one of the leading Native law practices in the nation.
Hickerson had a knack for hiring the talented lawyers ALSC needed to pursue class-action and other litigation with statewide repercussions. He was instrumental in attracting the Native American Rights Fund to Alaska in 1984, convincing ALSC’s administration to provide NARF with free office space for nine months while NARF established itself in what has since become a very important venue for its specialized advocacy.

The ’80s and ’90s were difficult years despite ALSC’s litigation successes, as the loss of both state and federal support resulted in a shrinking of ALSC’s annual budget from over $5 million to barely half that. Many legal services offices throughout the country were undergoing similar constrictions, withdrawing personnel from rural offices and concentrating their resources in urban areas. Hickerson fought this trend with everything at his disposal; according to Carol Daniel, a friend and former ALSC attorney, he "didn’t succumb to the temptation of giving up on rural Alaska" but "kept scrambling to get money to keep offices open in the Bush." Still, ALSC lost five of its rural offices, and Hickerson had to devote more and more of his time to politicking and fund-raising to protect those remaining.

Fortunately, politicking and fund-raising were roles for which Hickerson’s conversational gift and gentlemanly manner made him ideally suited. According to Daniel, Hickerson "enjoyed insulating his lawyers from having to deal with the paper-pushing aspect" of the practice of law, and he gained the respect of even those legislators and policy-makers in Juneau who disagreed with his long-term goals. At the same time, he kept his hand in the substantive legal work, supervising all the major litigation at ALSC and carrying a few criminal cases of his own.

Although Hickerson was well known throughout the state for his leadership at ALSC, there were personal aspects of his life in which his absence will be felt as much and even more deeply. He had been married to his wife Elizabeth, an Assistant Attorney General in the Anchorage office, for 29 years. Their son John Aleksandr is now five years old. While remaining close to their families Outside, the Hickersons made the most of their life in Alaska, enjoying the outdoors and accumulating friendships.

Hickerson was an avid runner and cross-country skier, played hockey, golf, and Lawyers’ League softball, and officiated Oklahoma football games from his living room. He thrived on the competition and camaraderie of sports. He organized a ten-person relay team, the Thunderbolts, that competed in the Klondike road relay from Skagway to Whitehorse every year since 1986. He put in solid performances in many running and skiing races from 5Ks to marathons and doggedly continued to run even as his illness and treatment took their toll on his body.

Vance Sanders, a former ALSC attorney who later served on the ALSC board of directors, described the determined look on his friend’s face as he rounded the final turn at a footrace, a look that Sanders said also characterized Hickerson’s devotion to the causes of Alaska’s indigent and Native people.
When there was any issue that dealt with equal access to justice, or treating people fairly, or treating people as they should be treated, or loving other people as God or whomever you believe in meant for other people to be loved, that’s the look he had on his face. And those of us who knew him well know that when Robert got his jaw set to help people, there was a lot of helping coming down.

Hickerson’s commitment to helping others was affirmed again and again at a memorial service in Anchorage on June 11, both by anecdotes from many and by the respectful attendance of hundreds of other friends, colleagues, and clients from throughout the state.

As summed up by Anchorage lawyer and friend Tom Daniel, "Robert was one of the good ones, and we’re going to miss him."

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