He got an eye shot out on the job, but that didn't slow down Leo Hickman. Nearly 40 years later, he's the oldest Texas Ranger by a decade--and, at 72, he's still on call 24 hours a day.
September 03, 2000|ESTHER M. BAUER | WASHINGTON POST
CHILDRESS, Texas — If the measure of a man is determined by his fearlessness, honesty and respect, then Texas Ranger Leo Hickman is one tough, honorable hombre.
When a deranged gunman shot Hickman in the eye and back before killing another man and wounding a third, Hickman aimed through the blood spurting from his face and shot the killer, disabling him before he could harm anyone else. That was in 1961. Hickman, just 33, was a Texas highway patrolman.
The loss of his left eye never slowed Hickman, who drove himself home from the hospital. He became a sharpshooter on the state police pistol team, and in 1971 followed his uncle and cousin into the Texas Rangers.
Sgt. Leo Hickman, now 72, is still on duty and thinking about retiring next year after 45 years in law enforcement, nearly 30 of them as a Ranger. As far as anyone knows, he's the oldest Ranger ever--and he can still shoot better than most people half his age.
As one of 107 Rangers stationed throughout Texas to aid other agencies in criminal investigations, Hickman is the only Ranger in a northwest corner of Texas that's larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined: a region of 26,000 people scattered over eight counties and 6,600 square miles, where three-story buildings are considered skyscrapers and withering summers blow the land into fine red dust.
Cattle far outnumber people here, but there's no scarcity of calls for Hickman's assistance. Sometimes it's for cattle rustling or thievery. Other times, it's for homicide, arson or public corruption.
Except for vacations and other time off, he's been on call 24 hours a day for the last 30 years.
Hickman's uniform is a Stetson hat, cowboy boots and the bearing he brings to the job. The hat and boots make his height soar over 6 feet 6, and the ever-so-slightly altered gaze of his hazel blue glass eye and the cocked semiautomatic Colt .45 on his hip make him even more imposing.
A Fearsome Reputation
Other lawmen say Hickman has the look of the Rangers who came before him, a mythical bunch with a 178-year history noted for fearless pursuit of lawbreakers. That combination of fact and legend makes his job easier, Hickman said.
That was the case a few years ago when he helped end a standoff near a nursing home where a man in a nearby house had fired a .44 magnum. For seven hours, Donley County Sheriff Jimmy Thompson and 10 other officers sought cover behind barricades and squad cars while trying to talk the man into surrendering.
The gunman surrendered to Hickman within 10 minutes of his arrival.
Hickman simply walked up to the porch, knocked on the door and identified himself as a Texas Ranger.
Hickman, who still recalls the red-hot-poker sensation of the bullets when he was shot three decades earlier, was "as nervous as hell" when the man stepped onto the porch, aiming the huge handgun at Hickman's gut. But Hickman said he just talked common sense.
"I told him, 'You're scaring the people in that old folks' home.' I told him to go back inside and put the pistol away and come back without it, and he did. I think he was impressed because I was a Texas Ranger."
Thompson has borne the brunt of ribbing from other officers ever since.
"It's Leo's demeanor," Thompson said. "He's not mean, but when it comes to doing his job, he does it no matter what. . . . Got his eye shot out, and he keeps on going; but he got the ol' boy that shot him, and that's what counts."
Breaking Age Barriers
Hickman's tenure as a Ranger has surpassed the once-mandatory retirement age of 65 because of the high regard superiors have for him. Seven years ago he challenged the age limit by asking to be exempted from the policy of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Ranger division. His request led to the elimination of the age cap.
Now Hickman is 10 years older than the next oldest Ranger. The only Ranger who may have been older on active duty was a character from San Antonio who produced so many birth certificates, no one knew how old he was when he retired in the 1970s.
Top-ranking officers consider Hickman a modern-day counterpart of the Rangers who helped bring law and order to the Old West as well as end the exploits of bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde.
"Leo's integrity and character as he got older has never at all let up," Cmdr. Bruce Casteel said.
Hickman's early 1990s drug investigation of Claude Lane, then a Childress County sheriff and a former high school football hero, was unpopular. But Hickman's only regret is that Lane didn't get more than a three-year federal sentence for selling marijuana. "I think police officers who get caught ought to get three times the penalty that anyone else gets," Hickman said.
Read more stories of the Texas Rangers