Gary Ficken grew up fixing heaters, and he kept fixing heaters until he died last month. He was 65, and it was a cold day.
Ficken, of Galloway Township, was in pretty bad health the last few years, with diabetes and heart trouble. He couldn’t walk for most of the last six months of his life, but he’d sit outside a customer’s house in a truck and send instructions in to a younger worker on how to get the heat going again.
“He’d tell guys, ‘If you have a problem, come out and tell me. I’ll diagnose it from the truck,’” said John Giordano, of Mullica Township, a 20-year worker at Ficken Heating and Cooling.
Ficken’s heart troubles weren’t new. Brian Houf, who’s married to Gary’s daughter, Christie, said his father-in-law was only 40 or so when he had his first heart attack. But the family knew Gary sometimes would go to the hospital to be treated with major procedures — then stop on the way home to fix a heater.
“I’ve been out with him many times when he could barely walk — and he’s fixing somebody’s heater,” Giordano said. “Then he’d charge them peanuts. I’d say, ‘Gary, you have to pay me. You have to charge them something.’ He’d tell me, ‘I’ve known them for a long time. I can’t do that — they’re good people.’ ... He’d always do for others and not for himself, and that’s probably why he was in the condition he was in.”
But even when he wasn’t busy in a job that he started by working for his late father, William, chances were good Gary was working on something else. He loved inventing, making and fixing stuff, and he was so good at it that his friends and family invented a term for it. They’d say Gary “Fickenized” things.
“He was pretty sharp. There wasn’t much he couldn’t fix one way or other,” said Don Bates, a friend since the two joined the same U.S. Army Reserves unit, in Northfield, in 1966. “Anything he needed pretty much either he knew how to do it, or his friends did, and things got done.”
But Gary did relax by traveling and camping, usually in motor homes he customized and Fickenized. He also liked riding motorcycles, and combining his RV and his motorcycle travels.
“From quick, laid-back trips up to quiet Lancaster County in the fall (to) ... extravagant vacations across the country — I thank God that he was able to get the chance to have some fun once in a while,” as a grandson, Rory Kebel, of Hammonton, wrote after Gary died. He added that his grandfather always made sure to share his fun with family and friends.
And Gary was an optimist, right to the end. He just knew things could be fixed. It wasn’t long before he died, Houf said, that he “bought a new motorcycle, because he thought he was going to pull through.”
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