AUGUSTA — Role model. Mentor. Helper. Best friend.

John “Pete” Hickey is all of these things, colleagues, community leaders and especially his students at St. Michael School say.

But they also say what matters most about the clearly beloved teacher, who is retiring after 37 years, is that he makes others want to be those things, too.

“He inspires me to help others before I think of myself,” said eighth-grader Ariana Ahearn.

Hickey has been inspiring youths at the Augusta parochial school, known as St. Mary’s School before its merger with St. Augustine School in 2007, for so long many of his former students grew up and are now the parents of current students or, in the case of sixth-grade teacher Alyssa Benedict and pre-kindergarten teacher Danielle Pickrell, his colleagues.

“Once I had John Hickey as a teacher, I knew what kind of educator I wanted to be,” Pickrell said. “One who inspires, is loved, remembered, and makes learning fun. He brings so much to our school. To our staff, he is a continuous, positive presence, always making us smile and laugh. To our students, he teaches them academics, but even more importantly, to care for others and give back to the community.”

Hickey, 62, a modest sort reluctant to talk about himself, volunteers many Saturdays at Bread of Life Soup Kitchen. And he encourages his seventh grade students to join him there.

The social studies teacher, who also taught French and served as athletic director at the school, has his students serve as pages in the state Legislature; arranges, with the school’s music teacher, student visits to Maine Veterans Home and VA Maine Healthcare System at Togus where they sing, deliver cards and talk with residents and patients; instills civic duty by holding mock elections; and helps organize intramural sports and other activities outside of the classroom.

“It’s a great loss to the education community of Augusta, particularly St. Michael,” Mayor William Stokes said recently when city councilors proclaimed June 11, the last day of school at St. Michael, to be John Hickey Day in Augusta. “He’s always been a favorite of students. He instills a sense of civic duty and teaches students to help others.”

Having his own day is an honor Hickey shares with his late father, Daniel Hickey, who represented Augusta in the state House of Representatives for 14 years and also served on the City Council. Hickey now owns and resides in his childhood home, on Sewall Street, just up the street from St. Michael.

“I’m not anywhere close to filling his shoes, but it’s nice to have the same honor,” Hickey said of having a day proclaimed in his honor, as his dad did, some 25 years earlier.

Hickey has deep family ties to the parochial school in Augusta.

His grandfather on his father’s side was on the building committee for the original St. Mary’s School, and his dad was on the building committee for the current school.

Hickey started working there shortly after returning home from college. He joked he didn’t think he’d last 37 days in the job, but has been there ever since.

“Something just seemed to click,” he said of why he’s stayed at the school. “A smaller school, a parish school, it’s like family.”

Students and staff said Hickey, who is single and has no children of his own, remembers the names of all his students, even those he hasn’t had in class in years. Teachers said he’s even been known to travel to watch former students compete in sporting events — in college.

“He’s my best friend,” eighth-grader Jacob Hickey, no relation, said. “I love him. He plays sports with us. He cares for every single one of us. Anything you ask, he’ll tell you.”

Eighth-grader Sam Blouin said Hickey has a great sense of humor and tells great stories about his adventures traveling.

“I just love seeing him every day, seeing his smile,” Blouin said. “He’s always smiling. He never has a bad day.”

That last part isn’t entirely true. Hickey agrees that everyone has a bad day sometimes, even him. But his bad days don’t last once he is with his students, he said.

“Of course you have some bad days, maybe you’ve got medical issues, or you’re worried about something,” Hickey said. “Then all of a sudden, they come into the classroom, and you’ve got 25 kids in front of you, and so you set your issues aside and forget about them. It’s almost like they energize you a bit.”

Sunday, after Mass, hundreds of people, including numerous former students, attended a reception at St. Michael for Hickey.

Principal Janet Galati said Hickey has a way of touching everyone’s life. His teaching style is conversational, and he works current events and world news into his lessons. She said faculty, administration and students all love him.

He’s so beloved that some students, such as eighth-grader Delaney Keithley, nearly broke into tears when asked to talk about him and his retirement.

“He’s such a good teacher, and he’s a good person,” she said. “When we go outside, he’s always picking up trash. He puts others before himself.”

Physical education and health teacher David Hopkins, who has known Hickey for 30 years, credits him with reinvigorating the athletic programs of the school, especially intramurals. He said decades ago, it was rare for private religious schools to put much emphasis on sports.

“When he first got here, athletics and intramural programs at this level were pretty rare,” Hopkins said. “He was probably one of the first to start such programs in a parochial school. I think a lot of parochial schools started off their own programs by the example he set.”

Hickey said he always loved sports growing up, even though he was not a star player. He said he’s proud of the intramural program, which includes soccer, ping pong, an annual home run derby, ice skating parties and an annual seventh-grade golf outing.

“I think athletics are for everybody,” he said. “In this day and age, some things can get a bit exclusive — travel teams, AAU teams — and the other kids can kind of get left along the side of the road. But everybody can have a lot of fun (in sports). It’s great to see them doing something physical, rather than playing video games. And there’s the whole team aspect. If you’re not getting along, working as a team, it just doesn’t work. On a basketball court or in life.”

Hopkins said Hickey, to him, is the epitome of a role model and mentor.

Denise Levesque, a part-time employee at St. Michael whose son is currently a seventh-grader there, said Hickey’s loyalty and commitment to his students is unsurpassed. She said he takes an interest in their well being not just during school, but after as well.

A big advocate of traveling, Hickey has some trips lined up for his retirement, including visits to the final six of the 30 Major League baseball parks he hasn’t seen yet.

But he’s not entirely retiring. He plans to come to St. Michael once a week next school year to help teach history.

Not surprisingly, Hickey said he’s proudest not of his own achievements, but the achievements of those who have passed through his classroom.

“Going to the supermarket and seeing old students, or seeing their names in the newspaper, and seeing they’re doing well, it’s just really rewarding to see them all grown up and raising their own families,” Hickey said. “It’s always nice when they tell you how much they enjoyed your class, and they’re trying to do some of the things you had done with them with their children. That does make you kind of proud.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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