Sweeny worked with Hickman at Blake’s, a fixture in the gay community. Hickman was the doorman for about 10 years and stopped working there about 2005.
“He was always there, just hanging,” said Sweeny, one of the barbacks.
“He would come in, grab a plate, go through the buffet line. That was fine. He was Old Man Phil,” Sweeny said.
That was the name people gave Hickman. He’s been described as crusty and curmudgeonly.
“He loved creating that persona, but under the surface he was a very very generous person,” said Greg Heagerty, who met Hickman when they were college students.
“A lot of people didn’t know that generous side of him. They just knew him as the feisty, old man-type guy.”
Once the shell was broken, people said Hickman was giving and friendly. He ran errands for his elderly neighbors and took them to medical appointments.
He took care of the yard for his 90-plus-year-old landlady, Heagerty said.
Heagerty and Hickman met more than 50 years ago as students at the University of Tennessee. Heagerty said they ran with different circles of friends but knew each other and moved to Atlanta about the same time – 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots that sparked the gay liberation movement.
Heagerty said Hickman would even “get sort of preachy” about that time, trying to remind people now about the meaning of gay pride.
“A (bar) customer told him, ‘I’m not interested in all that ancient history,’ and Phil said, ‘All of the rights that you have is because you are standing on the shoulders of giants,’” said Heagerty, a part-time doorman at Blake’s.
Heagerty considered that to be somewhat of an academic-esque statement coming from a guy considered by most to be unpretentious.
But he was known to go on about classic movies, raving about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, friends said.
He also loved Barbra Streisand and Cher and saw Etta James each time she performed in Atlanta.
And Hickman clicked with longtime Midtown resident and Blake’s employee Vicki Pasley because of their love for Elvis Presley.
“I’m an Elvis nut, and he is a huge fan,” Pasley said.
The King died on Hickman’s birthday, Pasley said. That always seemed to bother him, she said.
Pasley worked at Jocks and Jills in Midtown for 20 years and met Hickman in the mid-90s. Hickman would grab a Sprite or soda to drink, and the two would trade stories about hanging out on Peachtree Street or 10th Street, which Pasley said used to have a vibrant nightlife.
“We all have memories of that,” she said.
According to friends, Hickman’s cause of death was heart disease.
“He didn’t know a salad,” Pasley said. “He liked good, old Southern food. Anything from the Varsity. I always worried him about that, but he walked everywhere, so that probably gave him a couple of extra years.”
Steve Gower, a friend and neighbor, found Hickman last Thursday evening. Gower said a neighbor put a note on Hickman's door -- saying that someone was looking for Hickman to take care of his pet over the Memorial Day weekend.
"He was really good with animals; you couldn't ask for a better pet sitter," said Gower, who let Hickman take care of his two cats and now two dogs when he went away. "That's what's missing right now, the way he pampered my animals."
But Gower said he knew something was wrong when he came home from work and the blinds at Hickman's place were still closed. He said Hickman had been having health problems lately.
Gower took in Cricket, the little dog that neighbors gave Hickman five years ago. Cricket stayed with Gower for about three days, not eating and trembling with grief. Gower said he was able to find the little dog a new, permanent home.
"I promised him that Cricket would have a good home if something ever happened," Gower said.