Loss still fresh for family who lost parents in Forsyth Co. wreck

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Left: Clockwise from back left are Michael Penn, Windy Penn, their mother Felicia Hickman and their step father Jesse Hickman. Right: Windy Penn and Michael Penn, children of Felicia Hickman and step-father Jesse Hickman, who were killed in a wreck on U.S. 52 in October. (Scott Sexton/The Winston-Salem Journal)

By Scott Sexton/The Winston-Salem Journal

RURAL HALL, N.C. — Michael Penn sighed deeply and paused while he considered the question.

What were your parents like?

He is a working man, and his world has been a blur for most of the past two months. He and his sister Windy had recently buried their mother and step-father.

He knew that well-meaning people from outside his immediate circle would ask about them eventually. Time for reflection has been precious and scarce, so when the question came, gentle though it was, words nevertheless came slowly at first.

“They were just … real good people,” Penn replied. “They were simple. They just did regular stuff. They liked going to church and family gatherings. They were real humble people. They had a lot of love.”

A horrible crash

No doubt it was difficult to talk about his mother and step-father in the past tense. Their deaths were — still are — a shock, a tragedy that played out in headlines and on the 6 o’clock news for days in late October.

Jesse and Felicia Hickman were minding their own business, sitting in stalled traffic on U.S. 52 about 3 p.m. Oct. 30. Construction near the Westinghouse Road exit had closed one travel lane, forcing drivers to merge into one lane.

Traffic had backed up. We all know what it’s like. Some drivers dutifully merge as soon as they realize a lane is closed; others stubbornly refuse and cut in only at the last minute.

That afternoon, a semi-tractor trailer barreled up a slight grade and crashed into the line of traffic. It struck first a van carrying a family from Illinois. The force from the impact knocked the van off the road and over a guardrail. A 9-year-old boy was killed, and his parents and two siblings were hospitalized.

The big rig then crushed the car being driven by Felicia Hickman, and then another. Six vehicles were involved. Jesse Hickman was killed, and his wife suffered horrible injuries.

Michael Penn didn’t find out for several hours that his folks were involved. “It’s all people were talking about all afternoon, everywhere I went,” he said. “I had a weird feeling about it the whole time. It didn’t seem right.”

His grandmother, Felicia’s mom, was able to reach him about 8:30 that night and the news was confusing. He was told that both Felicia and Jesse had been killed, and didn’t learn otherwise until he got to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

His mother was on life support, with a head injury, cracked vertebrae and her femur broken in two places. Her shoulder had been crushed and internal organs damaged. She died two weeks later at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice home.

“It was a pretty rough 15 days,” Penn said.

He had his own grief to deal with and he had to figure out how to try and explain the unfathomable to his sons, 10-year-old Gianni and 3-year-old Malakai, and two young step-daughters.

“I just tried to tell them that God had a bigger plan,” he said. “I tell them that they’re our guardian angels.”

Honoring memories

Adding to their hurt was the fact that the driver wasn’t charged right away in connection with the crash, and that the N.C. Highway Patrol identified the wrong man as the driver of the truck because a trooper had written down the wrong driver’s license number.

Once that error was straightened out, Kelly Scott Kennedy, 49, of Liberty was charged Dec. 19 with three counts of involuntary manslaughter.

“It does help that somebody was finally charged,” Penn said.

In the days after his mother died, Michael Penn said he tried to jump right back into the routine of going to work. There, though, he was overwhelmed at times by well-meaning people who tried to console and comfort him. And so he took some time off.

Thanksgiving was tough for the family, and Christmas wasn’t much better. They did have more of a family gathering for the sake of the children, but it was subdued.

Older family members, the Penn’ aunts and an uncle, have been through this before. Felicia’s sister, Vicky Penn, was killed in 1978 in a similar crash that involved a truck. No charges were brought in that wreck, though.

“I thought about that (wreck) as soon as this happened,” Penn said.

He and Windy decided recently that they’d like to talk about their mother and step-father publicly because up to now, the only thing people remember is a grisly car crash that killed a little boy.

Few outside immediate family members spend much time thinking about the fact that a loving couple, salt-of-the-earth folks from Surry County, were killed, too.

The Hickmans met while working at Proctor Silex in Surry County and had been married for 17 years. You never saw one without the other nearby, Penn said. They were devoted to each other.

“Mom was beautiful,” said Windy Penn. “They never took anything for granted.”