Whatever Happened to Joyce Hicks?

A few weeks ago, I did a story taken from an article that appeared on the front page of the Livingston Enterprise dated May 12, 1950. A picture was included with a story about a little 6 year old girl named Joyce Hicks from Overton County. Joyce was lying in a hospital bed at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville with a headline over the picture that says "Joyce Smiles Through Pain." The story, with another headline that says "Tiny, Tortured Body Houses Heart With Strength of Steel" gives the details of what happened. The article says this:

"Courage sometimes comes in small packages. It’s no small feat to smile at visitors when 60 per cent of your body is covered with agonizing burns – when you’re swathed in bandages inches deep and the temperature outside is pushing 85. It’s a neat trick if you’re grown up. It’s a major triumph if you’re only 6 years old. But that smile is something visitors have come to expect from Joyce Hicks of Overton County, a patient at St. Thomas Hospital, Nashville. Joyce, daughter of a Hilham tenant farmer with five other children, hovered between life and death for more than a month before the state crippled children’s service came to her aid and had her placed at St. Thomas.

"Through yesterday, Joyce had already received two blood transfusions and will probably have dozens more, her doctor said. When she is better, the long and painful business of skin grafting will begin. Since the child has only such a small portion of her body uninjured, the task will be unusually tedious. A thin layer of skin must be removed from a healthy spot and grafted to a burned area. Then the spot from which the graft was taken must grow over again before a second graft can be attempted. ‘She’s in good condition," the doctor said. ‘But she will have to be in the hospital for a long time yet.’ Meantime, the crippled children’s service is footing the bill – an expense that Mr. and Mrs. Hicks, Joyce’s parents, could never have attempted. Joyce is on the road to recovery now, but it was a close call.

On March 3, 1949, the pretty little blonde girl was playing near her 14-year old brother who was burning grass to plant a potato patch. Somehow the girl’s dress caught fire. Before the flames could be extinguished, Joyce was burned over every section of her body except her face, and lower arms and legs. From March 3 until April 25 she lay in her rural home with no help except that which a country doctor could give her. News of her grave condition finally reached the state service. Now Joyce has blood plasma, penicillin, aureomycin and other miracles of modern science to help her. Joyce still cries when her father can’t get the money to come visit her, but she smiles a lot more often than she cries. In that smile is gratitude and a knowledge that the worst has passed."

After reading the story, several questions came to my mind ... what ever happened to Joyce Hicks? What was her recovery like? Who are her parents and what are the names of her other siblings mentioned in the article? But most important, where is Joyce today? I also asked in that earlier story that if anyone has information, to please contact me. The newspapers barely had time to be delivered when my telephone began to ring with calls from several people who had information about Joyce. Here’s the rest of her story.

Joyce Hicks
This photograph of Joyce Hicks Smith was taken from the 1961 Rickman High School annual.  She was a senior that year.

Joyce is the daughter of the late Alfred Hicks and wife Hallie Johnson Hicks, and is one of ten children. (The article printed in 1950 mistakenly said there five other children.) The names of her siblings in the order of their births are: Carman; Carvel; Clara; Cassie; Caston; Lillian; Carl; Jewel Dean; and Janell. Joyce is next to the youngest child. Alfred Hicks was a tenant farmer and later drove a truck hauling, coal, lime, and rock. His wife, Hallie worked very hard maintaining the home and caring for their large family. Hallie’s parents were Albert Johnson and Minnie Ray Johnson. Hallie died in 1986 at age 84. Alfred Hicks, who died in 1990 at age 90, was the son of J.P. Hicks and wife Ollie Maynord Hicks.

Joyce has been told by her older sisters and brothers about her early school days. They all walked to the O’Neal school, and everyday while as they walked, Joyce would cry because she was afraid she would miss a word in reading that day. This didn’t set well with her older siblings, and they were often very aggravated with her about her crying everyday.

Joyce doesn’t remember anything about the day she was burned and doesn’t have too many memories of her l8 month stay at St. Thomas. It was through the help of a neighbor that the Children’s Hospital at St. Thomas learned of Joyce’s situation. A neighbor of the Hicks family had a daughter named Reba Huffines who was a nurse in Nashville. After coming home for a visit, Reba became aware of what had happened to Joyce and got help for her. Joyce was taken to Nashville on April 25, 1949. Even though her stay in St. Thomas was a very long one, the memories she does have of being there are happy ones. She told me the Catholic nuns and nurses were very loving and kind to her, and would often take her places with them. Her father would visit if he could find someone to bring him to Nashville, but she doesn’t remember her mother getting to come to see her too many times. With so many other children at home, it was hard for her to be able to make the long trip to Nashville. Joyce described her mother as a very caring and loving person. On days when her father got to visit, Joyce would often cry because she knew he would have to leave and she couldn’t go home with him. The nurses told her father it might be better if he didn’t visit too often and this might help speed her recovery.

During the time Joyce was in the hospital in Nashville, the Hicks family moved to the Rickman area. After her long recovery, the day finally came when she could go home. Because she had teachers who helped her keep up to speed with her school work during her hospital stay, she was able to skip both first and second grade, and began school at Rickman in the third grade. She described herself as always being a good student and never wanted to miss a day. She was winner of the Overton County Spelling Bee in both sixth and seventh grades, was a cheerleader in high school, and participated in clubs and activities with her friends. She said she never considered herself as handicapped, and was accepted by all her friends and teachers. She graduated from Rickman High School in 1961 and in the fall of that year, she enrolled at Tennessee Tech with a scholarship for tuition and books. With help from her sister, Lillian, Joyce graduated from Tech in 1965 with a major in elementary education and a minor in history.

Joyce Hicks Smith was a member of the Rickman cheerleading squad.  Picture here left to right: 
Janell Hicks (Joyce's younger sister); Joyce Hicks; Lorene Gilliam (top center); Linda Oakley; Paula Swallows (far right); and Roger Phillips (center).

Her first teaching job was in Jacksonville, Florida where she taught fifth grade. While teaching in Jacksonville, Joyce married Larry Smith, who grew up in West Tennessee, and was also a Tech graduate. She taught until 1971. That was the year their first daughter, Julie, was born. A second daughter, Jennifer, was added to their family in 1974. Joyce’s husband, Larry, was employed with Nabisco. He was transferred to Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1975, where they lived until his promotion to sales supervisor in 1978. They moved to the Atlanta area following his promotion. Joyce did some substitute teaching while living in Atlanta, but devoted most of her time to being a full time mother. After her daughters started school, Joyce started to work part-time in the office of a OBGYN. That job later became a full-time one, but today, she continues to work part-time as office manager and bookkeeper, a job she says she loves. In 2001, her husband retired from Nabisco.

Both daughters graduated from college, and Joyce plans for her four year old grandson to also be a college graduate. Her letter to me ends with this paragraph:

"I would like to say that my life has been a miracle. I know that without God, I would surely have died, but He had a purpose for my life and I continually acknowledge Him for that. According to all medical science and opinions of relatives and friends, this truly was a miracle. I’m thankful that I have lived my life for Him and will continue to do that. I have many people that I should thank for helping me along the way, but my greatest thank you should go to my sister, Lillian, who passed away in April of 2009. I hope my story will inspire someone else to be whatever they desire to be, and not be afraid or ashamed of their background. We all need to accept people for who they are and not what they look like."