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Obituary

Michael Hicks, former TUSD board member, dies from COVID at 62

Michael Hicks, a longtime member of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, died on Tuesday from COVID-19. He was 62 years old.

Hicks served on the board of Tucson's largest school district for two terms, from 2010 through 2018, including a stint as its president. His tenure included years in which the district was rocked by controversy over its Ethnic Studies program, including heated protests inside the Governing Board meeting chamber and in the surrounding streets.

Despite verbal tussles with many of his fellow elected boardmembers, and what were on occasion physical altercations among attendees at meetings and outside the Governing Board chambers, his colleagues who sometimes disagreed with his stances had long noted his deep concern for TUSD's students.

"We didn't always agree on politics and policy, but he always put kids first and had the biggest heart," said Kristel Foster, a Democrat who served with Hicks for six years.

"I extend my sincerest condolences to the Hicks family. Mike and I didn't always agree politically but we connected on the importance of family and celebrating the accomplishments of our students," said longtime TUSD Boardmember Adelita Grijalava. "He was an avid supporter of all TUSD sports and arts programs and many in the city of Tucson and TUSD have heavy hearts. Rest in peace Mike."

A Republican, Hicks lost a re-election bid for the nominally nonpartisan board in 2018, then unsuccessfully ran for the Tucson City Council in 2019 and the Arizona Legislature just last year. Hicks was the foster son of former Tucson Mayor Lew Murphy, the longest-serving mayor of the city, in office for four terms from 1971-1987.

"Lewis Murphy is the reason Mike was in politics; he saw the difference his foster father made and wanted to do the same," his wife Leesa Hicks told TucsonSentinel.com on Tuesday night.

"This is a huge loss for Tucson," said longtime friend and co-worker Mike Graham. "Mike wasn't a politician — he wanted to do what was right for Tucson, what was right for the community."

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"We were honored to have him share his passion for students and our district for so many years," TUSD official said in a Facebook post. "We send our sincerest sympathy to his family and friends. We will miss his smile, laughter and passion for helping others."

Hicks, born Charles Michael Hicks in Ohio in 1958, was a Cholla High School graduate who attended Pima Community College and then earned a bachelor's degree in Management from Charter Oak State College (Conn.). Hicks was an intelligent transportation systems manager for the city of Tucson for more than two decades, and then retired from that position to work for the management company that operates Sun Tran, the city public transportation system.

Family and friends said Hicks, who had been hospitalized with coronavirus for a month, died Tuesday evening.

Hicks is survived by his wife, Leesa, as well as his son Michael Lewis Hicks (Jade), who is an Army Ranger stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga.; daughter Danielle Kristyne Hicks; and sister Terri Hicks-Osborn, and members of the Murphy family, including brothers Gray (Kimi) Murphy and Tim (Adrian) Murphy, sister Clancy Haun (Dale), and Carly Hill (Ryan), Megan Murphy, and Cameron (Becky) Murphy.

"Grey, Tim and Clancy are the children of Mayor Lewis and Carol Murphy, who took him under their wings and guided, directed, and inspired Mike," Lessa Hicks said.

Services are pending.

While he was involved in much of the turmoil that engulfed the district over almost a decade — from controversial contracts and firings of superintendents to the fallout from the district's Mexican American Studies program being effectively banned by Republicans in state government — Hicks' most nationally prominent moment came in a much-mocked appearance on The Daily Show, in which his plain-spoken approach was an easy target for humor.

His comment on the Comedy Central show that Ethnic Studies teachers "go out and buy burritos and feed these kids... what that does is it builds more of a bond between the teacher and the students" was blasted by supporters of the TUSD program. He said after it was broadcast that he had not been aware that the Daily Show was satirical, and that the clips of his statements were taken out of context. '

"It's not indicative of what I am, what I stand for," he told the Daily Star. "I feel the district didn't deserve this; I didn't deserve this; my family didn't deserve this."

The satirical TV show led to calls for Hicks to resign, but he refused — and went on to win another term two years later, although he again dealt with numerous controversies and was surrounded by infighting among Governing Board members that was almost absurd at times.

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"Mike and I agreed on some issues and disagreed on others, but he always cared sincerely about TUSD's students and employees," said Mark Stegeman, a former school board member who for years had Hicks as a close ally — until Hicks broke with him due to continued infighting. "He had a big heart, empathized with those having difficulties, and wanted to treat everyone fairly."

"I'm sure not everyone agreed with him all of the time, but they had to at least appreciate his honesty," said Graham, a city staffer who knew and worked with Hicks for two decades, told the Sentinel on Tuesday night.

"Those campaign signs that read 'Hicks Is 4 Kids' — that wasn't fake. He was all about the kids," said Graham, who often rode motorcycles with Hicks.

"I'm heartbroken. He was a great friend, a great co-worker, a great husband and father and one of the hardest-working guys that I have ever met," he said.

City Councilwoman Nikki Lee ran against Hicks in 2019, when she won office.

"I first met Michael Hicks on the campaign trail," she said in a Facebook post. "We found ourselves together at forums and debates... and often stayed after and talked about issues and ideas until they were turning the lights out to kick us out. Then we'd keep talking in the parking lot. He was always kind and respectful to me, even as his opponent, and it was easy to return the kindness and respect."

"Please continue to wear your masks and please get your vaccine as soon as it's your turn. COVID is taking away too many people who are greatly loved in their communities," Lee said. "Rest easy, Mike."

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19 comments
Jan 14, 2021, 6:30 am
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Mike and I parted ways due to disagreements on policy and personnel issues. (That takes nothing away from his service on the board.)

During Mike’s eight years on the TUSD Board, it engaged many major issues, beyond Mexican American Studies. This article would have benefited from more discussion of Mike’s role in those issues.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Hicks during a 2017 meeting.