Susan Hickingbotham's quest for adventure has taken her all over the world, with friends joking that she's off on trips more than she's home.
"I probably am," she concedes. "I'm always up for an adventure. I like zip-lining and whitewater rafting and parasailing and hot-air ballooning and all that kind of thing."
She just booked a trip to Africa, in fact, and can't wait to sleep in a tented hotel and photograph animals on a jungle safari.
Coming home, too, warms her heart. Her daughter, Hayden, a recent graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, now lives in that city and works for the social media department for the Dallas Cowboys. Her son, Christian, is a sophomore business major at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. Both return to Little Rock often.
"My mom calls our kitchen door the revolving door because when our kids are here they have a lot of friends over," she says. "I like doing all that, any family time or just being with others around the house."
Hickingbotham and her husband, Herren, have been involved in numerous philanthropic endeavors. She participated in Dancing With Our Stars to raise money for the Children's Tumor Foundation in 2016, and he's on the board of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Foundation at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Together they have chaired the Gala for Life for that organization, the Opus Ball for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and American Heart Association's Central Arkansas Heart Ball, and they have supported the Baptist Health Foundation and City Year, just to name a few.
They were the inaugural sponsors of Women and Children First's Woman of the Year Gala 13 years ago, and she has wrapped Christmas gifts, entertained children, served on the organization's board and more since then.
This year, she is being honored as the Woman of the Year.
"Susan and I joined the board of Women and Children First simultaneously way back when," says Lila Ashmore, who nominated Hickingbotham for the honor. "Serving meant a great deal more to Susan than attending monthly meetings. She immediately became immersed in the children's programs at the shelter. She deeply wanted the kids we serve to have love, promise and hope. What impressed me most was she did so very eloquently and privately. Her heart and actions were spot on then and remain so."
The 13th annual Woman of the Year Gala will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Marriott Grand Ballroom. Tickets started at $400, and the event has been sold-out since December.
Proceeds from the event cover a large percentage of the Women and Children First operating budget each year.
In 2018, Women and Children First provided 25,425 days of shelter to 640 women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse, with there being only four nights when one of the 54 beds in the facility remained empty. The organization answered its 24-hour statewide hotline more than 7,300 times last year.
Hickingbotham played games and worked puzzles with children on the floor in the shelter's day care, dubbed the Gentle Jungle, giving their mothers time to run errands or go on job interviews, and she helped with annual Christmas parties at the shelter, buying and wrapping gifts to be distributed to shelter residents.
"Susan has been involved in many organizations in our community but there is none that has touched her heart more than Women and Children First. She enjoyed serving on the board so very much but really enjoyed her engagement with the children and the mothers that were staying at the facility," says Herren Hickingbotham, her husband of 23 years. "Being a part of wrapping Christmas gifts and buying Christmas gifts and taking products or clothing that were needed for the families to the organization made her so happy and brought her so much joy and I just enjoyed seeing that in her, that she felt so blessed to be able to give so much to the organization."
About 10 years ago, Susan Hickingbotham worked with the late Lawrence Hamilton, Broadway singer and native Arkansan, on the P.R.I.D.E. (Promoting Respect in Dating Environments) program for Women and Children First.
"It's designed to educate and inform and build awareness on the effects of dating violence and domestic violence in communities. They're doing everything they can to break this cycle," she says.
Event co-chairman Natalie Rockefeller says Hickingbotham was a natural choice for the honor of Woman of the Year.
"Typically what we do is we nominate a few people and we talk about the reasons why they would be a good honoree -- things they have done for or at the shelter, if they've been previous board members, and then we go from there," Rockefeller says. "[She] was the only person nominated. Whenever Lila nominated Susan, it was like, yeah, that's exactly who it should be. And that was it. Everyone agreed."
Hickingbotham was born in Houston, but moved to Little Rock when she was in middle school.
"Both of my parents were originally from Mena, Ark., but my dad took a job at Hess Oil down there right after they got married and so we lived in Houston for several years," she explains.
Her parents have since divorced and her father, Wesley Davis, lives in Houston. Her mother, Vivian Henderson, lives in Little Rock.
Hickingbotham graduated from Parkview High School in Little Rock and majored in business marketing at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She worked for a while as office manager of the TCBY in Newport Beach, Calif., before she got to know Herren Hickingbotham, whose father, Frank Hickingbotham, founded that company in 1981.
"They had opened a district office out there to serve that region and I pretty much held down that office out there for all those guys that had that district. That was kind of their hub," she says. "That was in 1987, and you talk about growing up ... I moved out to California and didn't know a soul in that state. They lost my cat when I flew out there, for three days, and my second night there, there was an earthquake."
She moved back to Arkansas a few years later to work for the Variable Annuity Life Insurance Company, also known as VALIC.
"I had to get my securities license for that and that was kind of a challenge, but I got it," she says. "I called on nonprofit organizations and teachers and things like that and helped them with their retirement plans."
Her path and Herren's had crossed numerous times before they started dating, beginning with her mother managing Plaza West when his father had offices there and her uncle, Woody Jolly, coaching his football team at Parkview.
"It was just one connection after another until it was meant to be," he says.
Hickingbotham is an only child, and though she went through a brief period in childhood of longing for a sibling, "I guess I got over it," she says. "I had pets to keep me company. I'm all about animals -- I love, love, love them."
She has a 13-year-old bichon frise, Beau. She set out to foster another bichon frise, Lacey, a few years back after an email from a rescue group arrived in her inbox.
"I knew the minute she walked in the door with Lacey that that dog wasn't going anywhere and that puppy had been in a puppy mill for seven years, living in a cage and literally knew nothing," Herren Hickingbotham says.
Lacey died last year, six years after she joined their family.
Susan Hickingbotham has been known to stop her car, even in the rush of traffic around Cantrell Road and University Avenue, to move a crossing turtle to safety.
"She's even got me doing it," Herren Hickingbotham says with a laugh. "I don't know why they always feel like they have to get to the other side of the road but Susan will not let them do it. She's going to put them on one side of the road or the other but they're not going to be going across the road if she's around."
Her love for animals is another reason she supports Women and Children First. The shelter works with fosters and boarding facilities to protect the pets of women who seek shelter there, holding them until they are ready to transition to the next step.
"We're the only shelter in the state that can accommodate teenage boys because you have to have separate facilities. Because if you have a 13-year-old boy and you can't take him with you you're not going anywhere. It's the same with animals," Rockefeller says. "Pets may be the only comfort these women or kids have, or they may be the only reason the woman hasn't left."
Anne Jansen Broadwater remembers when Susan Hickingbotham was passing by a house that was on fire and she stopped, even before emergency vehicles arrived, to comfort a woman and her son who lived there.
"Then she organized this whole effort to find shelter and food and clothing for them. Every creature on earth is going to be helped by Susan," Broadwater says.
Hickingbotham and Broadwater have birthdays a few days apart and sometimes celebrate them together. This year, they spent the night in a hotel in downtown Little Rock and went bowling.
"She's just fun," Broadwater says. "I think most people probably see her at these fancy schmancy things but she's so happy to just be barefoot on the beach or just walking around the neighborhood. She's very down-to-earth."
Hickingbotham's travels have led her to some long-lasting relationships.
Barb White of Houston met her on a stay at the We Care spa in Palm Springs, Calif., about a decade ago.
"There was just something between the three of us that we all felt and so when we would visit over our healthy juices we always seemed to sit with Susan," says White, who was there with her daughter.
After four or five days, White told Hickingbotham she and her daughter were leaving the spa, to get a room in town for the last two days of their trip and invited her to join them, but she insisted she had made a commitment and was going to stick it out.
"Well, that night, we got a phone call and she said she was coming. So we sat and had a wonderful meal and some wine and got to know each other," says White, who got to know Herren Hickingbotham later as well. "After 17 years I love them more than the first week I met Susan. They're just genuine, kind, remarkable human beings."
While on a trip to Chicago, the Hickingbothams met Chuck Leavell, who has played keyboard and piano and provided background vocals for the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band, John Mayer, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Blues Traveler, Black Crowes and Train -- and who will provide after-dinner entertainment at the Woman of the Year Gala.
"Herren and I met him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago back in the mid-90s and now he's one of our best friends," she says. "Herren just walked up to him and said, 'Hey, we just saw the first show, we just saw it in Dallas and I just think the band's tight and y'all are amazing and good luck on your tour and and it's so nice to meet you.'"
Susan ran into Leavell again the next day while shopping on Michigan Avenue, and gave him one of her husband's business cards. Leavell returned to the hotel and bumped into Herren again in the lobby.
Leavell invited them to meet him for a drink in the hotel bar that night after the Eric Clapton concert, and from there he invited them to London, where Clapton was to play with Elton John at Wembley Stadium.
"We went and sat in the Royal Box with Fergie, who was married to Prince Andrew, and Elton John's boyfriend at the time and rode with Chuck in a police-escorted Mercedes limo and it's been like that ever since," she says.
Leavell says he was drawn to the Hickingbothams initially because it was clear they were fellow Southerners.
"They were just so nice and polite, soft-spoken, I just immediately got the feeling that these were nice people," he says. "Herren told me that his family owned TCBY at the time and I thought, 'Well, there's a famous brand for you, they must know what they're doing if they own that company. But Susan, in particular, she's just got that kind of lovely little kind of shy persona about her, soft-spoken, a beautiful smile."
The Hickingbothams have made a point to ask about the Leavells' children over the years, calling and visiting them when they happen to be in the towns where they live.
"Herren and Susan have been to many, many shows, not just the Rolling Stones, but when I was working with Eric Clapton they came to shows, and we've done other things together through the years and it's just always a pleasure. They're just some of my favorite people," Leavell says. "When we were with Eric Clapton, the drummer at the time, a guy named Steve Ferrone, I introduced them and they struck up a friendship and that friendship remains today and that's not the only example. A lot of people that I've introduced them to, they have become very close with. They're just that kind of folks. They're the kind of people you want to warm up to."
Leavell will do a solo performance at the Women of the Year Gala.
"It'll just be me and a piano and a microphone to sing, probably around 40 or 45 minutes -- it won't be a long set but I wanted to do enough to do a celebration for Susan and have some fun for the people who attend. Hopefully it will work out well."
• DATE, PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 13, 1962, Houston
• MY FAVORITE MEAL IS: Mexican food with a good margarita.
• A MOVIE I RECENTLY SAW AND LIKED WAS: A Star Is Born.
• THE PLACE I LOVE MOST IS: Lake Como, Italy.
• SOMETHING FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT ME: "I started twirling at a very young age and I went to state championships when I was young."
• MY MOST PRECIOUS CHILDHOOD MEMORY IS: Catching frogs or going to the zoo and Astroworld and Ice Capades and the rodeo and things like that.
• WHEN I TRAVEL I ALWAYS TAKE WITH ME: An accordion-style album of photos of my family -- our children and our pets and all. When we travel I string it out on a dresser or something.
• TO RELAX I LIKE TO: Read.
• SOMEDAY I WANT TO: Skydive. It's already been paid for and it's ready to do. I'm scared but I still want to do it.
• FIVE PEOPLE LIVING OR DEAD THAT I WOULD INVITE TO A FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Mick Jagger, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vivian Johnson (my maternal grandmother who passed away), John F. Kennedy Jr. and Jack Hanna.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Blessed
“I’m always up for an adventure. I like zip-lining and whitewater rafting and parasailing and hot-air ballooning and all that kind of thing.” — Susan Hickingbotham
High Profile on 02/10/2019
Print Headline: Hickingbotham is Women and Children First’s Woman of the Year for 2019