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UC Davis Centennial
100 years of service, solutions, impact
Photo: Hickey Gym. (Debbie Aldridge/UC Davis archival photo)

Hickey Gym most recently was renovated earlier this decade to accommodate the gymnastics program. Pits were installed in the floor of the lower gymnasium to relocate gym equipment, and a porch on the northeast corner of the gymnasium was enclosed for a longer vault runway. (Debbie Aldridge/UC Davis archival photo)

Looking Back

Namesakes: Vern Hickey

Photo: Vern Hickey

Vern Hickey

Long before the Obama Stimulus Plan, Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration jump-started a Depression era economy by funding large and small public projects nationwide, including UC Davis’ own Hickey Gymnasium. And, despite our resplendent Activities and Recreation Center built in 2004, the seven-decade-old gym remains in active use. To keep up with student demands for up-to-date sports facilities, the building has undergone minor renovations over the years since the “modern” concrete gymnasium was first built in 1938 with WPA funding. The building carries the revered name of Vern Hickey, who arrived at UC Davis as football and golf coach a year before the building was built.


One of the first things people noticed about Vern Hickey was his big, strong hands. A former college football star, Aggie coach and Davis mayor, Hickey left a lasting impression with just a handshake.

“The first time I shook hands with him, his hands enfolded my whole arm. He took pride in that,” said retired coach Herb Schmalenberger, who likened Hickey’s hands to those of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker.

But Hickey’s legacy was a coaching philosophy that put students first, said Schmalenberger and a succession of other coaches who followed in Hickey’s footsteps. “He developed a philosophy of the student-athlete that is still with us today,” said Schmalenberger.

Hickey, a native of Everett, Wash., had been a two-time all-coast selection at halfback at Washington State University and played in the first East/West Shrine football game in 1925. He joined UC Davis in 1937, where he coached football and golf—and in addition, during the early years, baseball, basketball, water polo and swimming. He also served as athletic director from 1961 until his retirement in 1967.

Off campus, he was a member of the Davis City Council from 1947 to 1960, serving as mayor in 1954—1959. He also chaired the planning and recreation commissions, served as police commissioner and chaired the Davis Chamber of Commerce board of directors. He was named 1953 Davis Citizen of the Year and was inducted posthumously to the UC Davis Athletic Hall of Fame.

Hickey once told a newspaper reporter that the most important lesson athletics teaches students is how to work with others.

“He gave me one bit of advice when I started coaching: ‘A pat on the back goes further than two on the butt,’” said his son, Bill, a retired Sacramento City College Hall of Fame wrestling coach. “He always tried to find something good in anything bad and build off that. I’ve tried to follow that.”

Kathleen Holder is interim editor for the UC Davis Magazine.

Take a look back at UC Davis’ history