"You listen to that little guy, because he's the guy that tells you the reality," Hickel said on his 90th birthday, in August 2009.
Back in 2002, I couldn't resist asking Hickel about his relationship with the little guy: where did he get his visions, and when did the little guy first appear?
"When I was a little guy," Hickel responded. "Thinking, walking, I walk a lot -- I call him a little guy. And I remember in 1990, in March, The New York Times, I was on the front page, they had a picture of me with a little guy sitting on my shoulder. I'm not afraid to talk about it; I've talked to presidents, popes and prostitutes about the little guy."
When Hickel was a little guy, he was raised on a farm in Kansas, and even back then he was thinking big.
"I remember: ‘Mom, Mom, why war? Why not big projects?'" Hickel said. "I remember jumping up and down -- she laughed."
Hickel was educated by nuns who read to him every day, because he couldn't read. It wasn't until he grew up that he realized he was dyslexic.
"People that have the problem I had have vision, because God gives you something that you need -- I had vision," Hickel said.
Hickel's vision has often been questioned, like his idea about piping Alaska water to the California desert. When Nixon appointed him as Interior secretary Hickel became fodder for political cartoons, and he was shown gambling with the fate of wildlife.
Though Nixon brought Hickel into his Cabinet because he was big on oil development, the new Interior secretary showed another side during the 1969 oil spill disaster off the coast of Santa Barbara.
"He held a press conference and he said, ‘I'm going to shut down all drilling offshore until we upgrade the regulations,'" Roberts said. "Because to his amazement and to America's amazement, there had been no regulations written for offshore drilling."
Hickel's insistence on the shutdown didn't win him friends in the Nixon administration, but the final straw was the Vietnam War. He objected to the war's expansion into Cambodia in a public letter, and attended a peace rally with folk singer Burl Ives.
The rocky relationship between Nixon and Hickel was well known, and came up in a "Face the Nation" interview with Mike Wallace.
"Who do you think it is in the White House who wants you out of there?" Wallace asked.
"Mike, I don't know. You cut the top of my head off and look. I'm telling you the truth -- I don't know," Hickel angrily answered.
Although Nixon eventually fired Hickel, he says he was never bitter -- and never felt freer. Freedom was a theme in Hickel's life, one that he talked about when Channel 2 did a profile on his longtime friend, Mortimer "Moose" Moore.
"And I know you work out every day and so do I, but you don't bring your bear down here to harass him any more," Hickel jokingly told Moore, who once wrestled bears on his homestead and later went on to help Hickel start his health club at the Hotel Captain Cook.
"I don't bring him down here because it's against company policy," Moore responded.
"You stay free in your heart and you do what you think is right and you do it with good intentions -- you do it with enthusiasm," Hickel said. "There's an old Greek interpretation for the word enthusiasm, that's to be filled with the spirit of God."
I asked Hickel how he stayed free.
"Tell the truth and be honest with it, and be damned true to yourself and be fair to yourself," Hickel said.
The freedom Hickel exercised to speak his mind often brought controversy, as when he once famously said, "You just can't let nature run wild."
"He was explaining why there had to be predator control," Roberts said. "Now, of course, those who like to ridicule Hickel have just taken that quote out of context, but Wally has never apologized for it."