James Bickers, the founding editor of Digital Signage Today and Retail Customer Experience, died at the age of 45 on Sept. 29, stunning colleagues and friends who knew him as a man with a strong love of family and successful journalism and broadcast careers.
He is remembered as creative, passionate, enthusiastic, talented, but, most of all, a man who adored his family and a man who made everyone smile.
He is survived by his wife, the former Nancy Hodges, and three children, Miles, Lucy and Ellery Bickers. His editorial decade at Networld Media Group overlapped a nearly 20-year career of serving as a radio host on public radio stations 89.3 WFPL and 91.9 WFPK in Louisville, Kentucky.
NMG co-workers and colleagues are sharing anecdotes of working with the highly-respected journalist and radio broadcaster who clearly viewed his role as husband and father as his top priority.
Bickers leaves a legacy rich with loving friendships, respected professional achievements, and a life well lived. And that legacy, as NMG President and CEO Tom Harper notes, will live on.
"On top of his entrepreneurial drive and creativity, James was just plain fun to work with. He had an air of calm maturity that drew people to him — a great asset as he moved into management," said Harper. "I loved his sense of humor. He was a smart writer and an encouragement to all of those who worked with him. James was indeed our retail leader, but he also helped guide us into the digital signage market. He had great vision, recognizing opportunities for Networld that are still benefiting us today. I will miss my friend and colleague greatly."
Harper's words are echoed by a long list of NMG colleagues who remember Bickers as an innovator and enthusiastic presence no matter what the project.
"James was a brilliant man with an abundance of creativity. One of his biggest contributions to our company was the vision he brought to the table as the founder of one of our daily news sites, RetailCustomerExperience.com, that continues to thrive today," said NMG EVP and Publisher Kathy Doyle. "During our time working together, he brought a great amount of innovation to Networld Media Group and we did indeed, share a lot of laughs along the way. A good man who left us too soon."
During his editorial career Bickers was the founding force behind NMG's webinar initiative and given his radio "personality" he fast became known as the "radio voice" of NMG, as one colleague recalls.
"Many of my clients would ask him to moderate their webinars, not just RCE, because he was just a natural behind the microphone," shared NMG coworker David Wurm.
Bicker's love of music was the prime motivator for his radio career and something he shared with colleagues.
"I just remember the day I went down to his office and told him I'd be attending the Nickelback concert at the KFC Yum center here in Louisville, and he literally about fell out of his chair," shared Wurm. "I knew right there he was not a fan."
Bicker's enthusiastic presence wasn't confined to NMG's office and hallways, as colleague Willie Lawless shared.
Bickers tended to drive, rather than fly, whenever possible to out-of-town work events, and he and Lawless once took a road trip from Louisville to Chicago. The experience gave the two a rare opportunity to get to know each other outside of work.
"James was such a great friend and coworker. He was deeply committed to Networld Media Group. I got to talk to James and really get to know him and experience his passion for his children and family," Lawless said.
"He once shared a story to me about how he went to the mall and his child wanted to jump on a trampoline and he initially said no, but he thought to himself why not enjoy the moment watching his kid smile because before we know it, our kids are grown up and we will be wishing for another opportunity to just say yes. We never know when the last opportunity will be. It was something I was greatly touched by and impacted how I will never take for granted the moments with my children," Lawless said, adding a very familiar refrain heard from co-workers: "I will miss James and his wonderful personality greatly."
Colleague Yuqiong Fan recalled Bicker's diligence in making things work, such as a spellchecker feature in the content system and search capabilities on the RCE site.
"He was hard working, treated people in good faith, was a highly responsible and a trusted person," said Fan.
Bickers is also being remembered by industry leaders who respected his talents.
Lyle Bunn, a regular RCE blogger and analyst, advisor and educatorin the digital media industry, recalled Bicker's industry contributions and his philosophy of life.
"James' efforts raised many ships in his supporting the growth of end-users and providers of digital media. His contributions elevated digital commerce and he helped make the world, and America's competitiveness better," shared Bunn.
"He was diligent, conscientious, objective, fair and level headed. The Bible reference of 'well done, good and faithful soldier' is suitable to James, but a 2 Corinthians verse 6:10 is more accurate… 'As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing: as poor, yet making many rich: as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.' James was a fine, humble and giving human being from whom all can take the lesson 'to be of service is life's great happiness.' His hand will be on our work by the standard that he set," added Bunn.
Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor, also held him in high regard.
"James was one of the most genuine people I have ever met. His smile was genuine, his interest in helping others and his laughter genuine. James invited me to speak several times at the Retail Customer Experience Summits and lead local store tours for who was really on trend. The loss of insight and passion makes the world a dimmer place today," Phibbs said.
NMG Senior VP of Events David Drain described Bickers as a man "gentle and kind as he was tall." Bickers was already directing two NMG sites when Drain joined the company.
"He was full of ideas and was always willing to take on new roles and responsibilities," Drain said. "He was always helpful and supportive to me. I'll miss him."
NMG colleague Katy Shaffner recalls Bicker's writing talent and how he "could always take a topic or idea and put together the perfect blend of copy to make the story 'pop' in a concise and clever manner." The two worked together on the RCE Executive Summit during the years and he respected marketing and sales efforts, she noted.
"He respected our opinions and suggestions and was open to new thinking and encouraged us to look at things that we hadn't done before. He was not self-serving, he always wanted what was best for the company and for our readers," she said, adding she was sad when she learned he was leaving for a radio job.
"He loved working at Networld, he said the only reason that he was leaving was it was his bucket list ‘'dream job,' otherwise he would have worked here until he retired," she said. Shaffner recalled his "heart of gold, and how he believed in friendships, trust, loyalty and responsibility.
"James and I used to have early morning coffee talks, when I would stop down to his office and we'd talk about things going on in our lives, our families, our aspirations, etc. That's when I really got to know him better," she recalled. "He loved spending time with his family and would say things like, 'I don't know how I ever got so blessed to have her in my life.' He loved his kids. He would talk about his time with his kids as his best moments. He loved being a father and honored this role as a gift to have such great kids. When he left Networld, it was a truly sad day for me."
When NMG VP of Marketing John Renner looks back on the time he worked with Bickers, the first thought that pops into mind is Bickers' sense of humor. The two shared an office for about a year.
"In that time, I heard his end of many phone calls he had with his wife, Nancy. It didn't matter how long or short the conversation was or what the topic was, James always ended the call with a heartfelt 'I love you.' You could tell by the way he said it and by the way he talked to her that he absolutely adored her. My heart breaks for Nancy and their kids," Renner said.
The former office mate also noted Bickers' wit and the instrumental role he played as an editor.
"I always considered James the hardest working employee at Networld. He always stepped up to do whatever was asked of him and then volunteered to do more," he said.
Mobile Payments Today Editor Will Hernandez didn't share the same close relationship but echoed what longtime colleagues do share — how Bickers truly loved being a husband and father.
"He loved his children dearly. That was always apparent when he talked about them to me, or when he posted a picture with them on Facebook. As someone who lost his father at a young age, my heart goes out to them over their loss. RIP to you, sir. I always enjoyed talking nerd stuff with you," Hernandez said.
Liz Matney, another longtime NMG employee who knew Bickers well, not only recalls Bickers' journalistic expertise and his penchant for finding great event speakers, but how she enjoyed listening to him as the morning voice of Louisville Public Radio at WFPK.
"Always the journalism professional, his articles were attention grabbers. Many aspects of our business improved because of his ideas. Even the work environment improved — he was the force behind being allowed to wear nice blue jeans during the week,” she shared, adding that whenever the Bickers family visited the office they would stop and greet everyone. “He deeply loved his wife and family. We missed him when he left Networld for a larger role at the Public Radio Partnership and now we deeply miss him. The Louisville community has lost a local icon."
Matthew Stethen is another NMG colleague who knew Bickers well and worked closely with him over the years, specifically on the launch of DST.
"We traveled the world learning from one another and getting the site up and running, and successful, in a very short amount of time. His hard work and dedication to DigitalSignageToday.com in the very early days was very likely the most important reason for its immediate success," said Stethen, who also noted Bickers' instrumental role in the webinar strategy for the company.
"I believe not only was it his idea, born from his experience with podcasts that we also did at the time, but his radio experience and voice training also very much contributed to its initial, and continued success over the years," he said, describing Bickers as the "quintessential colleague."
Stethen respected not only Bickers' professional traits but the man he was day to day — supportive, helpful, respectful, wise and trustworthy.
"He was great at his job, but his entrepreneurial spirit is what made him wildly successful and unique, and an indispensable asset to our team. I can easily credit him for a lot of my early success. If I had a problem, he helped me with a solution. If I needed help, he was always there. I was upset when he left Networld for all of these reasons and more," Stethen said.
"The one thing that struck me very early on, when I first met him and got to know him, is that he was a family man, Dad, and husband first and above all else. And if he taught me anything, it's that that's the way it should be, and I've tried to model that since starting my own family. He had it right and that's why I'm most sad that he's no longer here for his family."
Christopher Hall, a NMG co-worker, recalls Bickers as an innovator, an idea guy and someone with a tremendous sense of humor.
"He was funny, like really funny. He loved broken jokes and dad jokes, but he also had a sly sense of humor that would slip one by you — so you'd be walking back to your office before you realized he'd gotten in one last shot with you even knowing, which would just start you chuckling all over," Hall said. And while the colleagues did "butt heads a few times, as any strong-willed people are wont to," the exchanges were always amicable and professional.
"As probably everyone else who's ever known him will tell you, he loved his family more than anything. That was his foundation, and he never shied from being completely in love with his wife and his kids. I'm sad for everyone who knew him, but they're the ones who I really feel for right now. Godspeed, JB."
Another longtime NMG colleague, Julie Jones, who worked with Bickers for his entire tenure as a NMG employee, didn't interact with him on a daily basis but thought the world of him as a person, friend and colleague
"We differed in some area of thought, but we always found something in common to discuss and agree about. I found him to be intelligent without being superior and loved the fact that he was so outspoken about the love he had for his wife and children. That was what I liked best about him. He was kind and considerate, funny and just an all-around great guy. The world is a darker place without James," she said.
Bickers was one of the best colleagues NMG employee Katie Broxterman has ever worked with. He was extremely helpful and welcoming when she came to NMG and provided needed advice.
"From a business standpoint he sat in on a lot of my calls with me but he also went to Utah with me and the client was so impressed with him and his professionalism and knowledge of the industry that they invited him to sit in on their advisory board," she recalled.
NMG employee Jennifer Recktenwald holds the same warm feelings about Bickers, whom she describes as an "outside of the box thinker, always coming up with a solution to make customers happy."
Such a trait was true of his personality, she noted.
"He was a genuine, good person. Everyone who encountered this gentle giant loved him. His pleasant demeanor and comical wit was greatly appreciated as a coworker and friend. Truly a loss to the world," she said.
One of NMG colleague Diana Sexson's best memories of Bickers was related to his strong love of family and his parenting role.
"I was eating alone one night after shopping in the mall, when a cute redheaded boy about 7 to 8 years old came over to my table. With old world gallantry he put out his hand to shake mine and introduced himself. I recognized his last name and he pointed to the table where the rest of his family was watching. I hadn't seen them come in and it was James, his wife, Nancy, and the children. Later, James told me the greeting was his son's idea when James told his family I was a coworker. It was a warm, friendly gesture and very properly executed. It was the highlight of my evening," she recalled.
NMG Editorial Director Cherryh Cansler, who worked with Bickers over the years, recalls sharing many funny jokes and enjoying his sense of humor.
"In fact, he used to call me his 'brother from another mother' because the things that made us laugh were the things that most 12-year-old boys would find funny," she recalled, adding she remembers being in awe over how much he loved his wife and kids.
"He talked about Nancy like they were newlyweds despite being together half their lives. He was a fun-loving guy, who I will remember as smart, funny and caring. JB, I hope you are listening to some great tunes or watching 'Doctor Who' up there," she said.
NMG colleague Debra Estes-King recalls how Bickers managed all his various NMG roles with great professionalism, whether he was a site editor, or running special events or leading the webinar strategy.
"I loved working with James when he was here with us at Networld. James always had just the right solution for whatever situation presented itself. James always had a creative idea that would help present the sponsor in just the way they were seeking. His insights were uncanny, and James was truly a gem in his chosen field," she recalled, adding he had a kind, giving heart and a great sense of humor. "We will all miss him here at Networld, and his wife Nancy and family are in our prayers."
Bickers' sense of humor was a trait NMG colleague Kim Brown also loved.
"I really enjoyed working with James. He was smart, funny and all around great guy to talk to. We were all sad when he decided to leave Networld but knew he was doing something he really loved. James, we miss you," she said.
For those who followed Bickers on Twitter (where he described himself as: "Writer, creator, interviewer, silly person. Associated Press award-winning journalist. Do not take counsel of your fears, lad ... fortune favors the brave.") followers knew his posts would be fun, poignant and worth taking note of.
His last tweet, in fact, was a bit of a prophecy as he retweeted a post by comedian Ricky Gervais: "If you do what you love every day then you can't fail."
And Bickers' legacy proves that true.
On his LinkedIn page, in his concise and smart writing style, Bickers summed up his career and personal goals in two short sentences that anyone who knew him would be quick to point out he had achieved.
"More than anything else, I would like to use whatever skills I have to make the world a better place, and to make the lives of people better. Let me know if I can help you do that,"” he wrote.
Well you did just that, James Marcus Bickers, as evident from all the lives you touched.
/ Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.