In Our View: Heart Like a River

Ray Hickey turned a barge line dynasty into a fountain of philanthropy

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Few residents of this region have left — or will ever leave — as vast and benevolent a footprint as Ray Hickey. The former owner of Tidewater Barge Lines — who died Wednesday at his home at age 82 — leaves the legacy of a man who loved living in Vancouver as much as he loved working on the Columbia River. Local residents have lost track (somewhere beyond $20 million) of the dollars Hickey donated to dozens of local and area charities. And river merchants have lost track of the tons of cargo he guided up and down the Columbia for more than four decades. But there is no losing track of the legacy.

Headlines will dwell on highlights, but by concentrating on the many dramatic, heartwarming and amusing anecdotes of Hickey’s life, we gain a fuller understanding of what he leaves behind. And our favorite story, reported by The Columbian in 2007, is about the time Hickey required the services of an ambulance. Turns out he was mightily impressed with two Camas EMTs named Mark Widlund and Steve Pozsgai of the Camas Fire Department. After asking the department what type of equipment it needed, Hickey sent a check for $119,713 to replace defibrillator/monitors and motorized gurneys.

That kind of impromptu generosity proved Hickey’s love of friends and strangers was as genuine as the smile that accompanied the gifts. Hickey’s reputation also was built on courage. In a 2008 column for The Columbian, Tom Koenninger recounted the time Hickey coached a Little League team and focused on one particular boy during tryouts. The boy was hit on the head by one fly ball and in the face by another. “We want that kid on our team,” Hickey told a startled assistant who wondered what could possibly warrant such a choice. “Look, he’s fearless. We can teach him to catch the ball. We can’t teach him to be fearless.”

Koenninger also wrote about how hard work ranked among Hickey’s highest priorities. His barging empire began in 1951 when he was a deckhand, and reached its zenith 45 years later when he sold Tidewater Barge Lines. That industrious spirit was reflected in the title of Hickey’s 2008 book: “Don’t Tell Me It Can’t Be Done; Your Career Is Your Ship — You Be the Captain.”

The barge line kingpin’s most visible contributions are the Ray Hickey Hospice House (which opened in 2004 and where hundreds of people each year spend their final week or two in comfort) and the pediatric research department of Portland’s Oregon Health & Science University (which flourishes thanks to Hickey’s $2.5 million endowment in 2008). But throughout this region, evidence of Hickey’s kindness is measured in countless ways. Just ask anyone at the local YWCA, which annually uses $50,000 from Hickey’s endowment to support services for children from low-income or homeless families.

Daughter Linda Hickey says her father will be remembered most for “his empathy for others. He was a very grateful person for what he had in his life, for his opportunities, and he used that to make a difference.” Those differences knew no boundaries. Indeed, her father — even as a Vancouver resident — was honored at the 2005 Oregon Philanthropy Awards.

The Ray Hickey Foundation will continue to provide help to the neediest people on both sides of the Columbia River. Untold numbers of lives will be improved by the humanitarian outreach of a man whose heart was as big as that great river.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to list Ray Hickey’s correct age. He was 82.