At 18 years old and with only five tattoos on his body, Huntington North High School graduate Paul Bickel chose to work instead of pursuing a path to higher education. Now, 28 jobs and 75 tattoos later, he studies business at Huntington University.
By Anna Hershberger | Contributor
Paul Bickel never dreamed he’d be attending college, much less at his hometown university.
Bickel grew up in Huntington, Ind., but spent five years between high school and college traveling and racing bicycle motorcross (BMX) bikes.
His travels ranged from Australia to Azerbaijan, and he accumulated about 70 tattoos along the way.
His 75-and-counting tattoos tell his life story. Now in his fourth year of university, Bickel is obtaining a degree in hopes of owning his own custom home-building business.
“One time I roughly guess-timated. It’s like $8,500,” says Bickel when asked about the approximate worth of tattoos on his body.
All of the tattoos have a unique meaning to him. Some are religious, some represent family members, and some depict trips he’s taken—and just about everything in between.
“It’s an expression of yourself and memories,” Aidan De’Leon, Bickel’s primary tattoo artist located in Fort Wayne, explains why one might choose to get a tattoo. “It’s the only thing that you can actually take to the grave.”
Bickel’s tattoos are the first thing many people notice about him.
“His tats are like his expression of himself, which I found kinda interesting,” Ben Humrichous, an HU junior, says as he explains the first thing that stuck out about Bickel.
One might assume Bickel has worked a high-paid, steady position to afford the array of art on his body. That’s not the case.
“I’ve been the hardest worker at not having a job,” Bickel says with a laugh.
That’s what a friend told him years ago.
“Honestly, I’ve not really worked. I’ve just done things to get by,” Bickel says.
Shortly after graduating high school he departed Indiana on a greyhound bus and traveled to Oregon with his skateboard and a backpack. He lived there homeless for two months and then came back to Decatur, Ind.
He left a welding job in Decatur after about eight months and moved to Indianapolis, where he bounced from job to job.
“I’ve always been a welder by trade,” says Bickel, who learned to weld in trade school during his junior and senior years of high school. “I did several welding jobs and then landed a job at Menard’s and fell in love with Menard’s.”
Bickel picked up a catchphrase from his coworkers at Menards—‘It doesn’t cost a dime to be nice.’ He references it to this day.
“I really like interacting with people,” Bickel says. “So that was, like, a great opportunity to do manly things, like hard labor, and still interact and cut it up with people…meet people, hear about their life, and talk to them.”
He met many people throughout the years, but his family stuck through all of the transitions. Bickel attributes everything in his life to his parents.
“It’s just more experience!” Deb Bickel, his mother, says as she shares her thoughts on her son’s job-hopping.
He attended a BMX race while he lived in Indianapolis and decided he’d like to try his hand at the sport.
He moved back to Huntington, transferred to Fort Wayne’s branch of Menards, and worked there part-time so he could focus on his new hobby.
He was only 20—just two years out of high school.
He started at an amateur level and within one year he qualified to race for team USA.
Bickel got to travel nationally and internationally to race bikes, but racing didn’t pay well.
It was never about the money to him.
“My full-time gig was just enjoying life,” Bickel says.
Enjoying life has included a lot of travel for Bickel, but according to him, Huntington will always be home.
“Huntington, where I’m from, has a negative connotation,” Bickel states. “People I went to high school with are, like, ‘I hate it here. I want to get out. There’s nothing to do here.’”
Bickel has never experienced that feeling.
“I like to go different places so I can really fall in love with where I’m from,” Bickel says. “Huntington is just everything that I want in life.”
He wants other people to feel the same love for Huntington that he does.
“Now it’s like—alright, I’ve been all these cool places—now how can I bring that back to my hometown to let people know they should stay here?” Bickel says.
To stay in shape for BMX, he began running and decided to quit smoking cigarettes.
He ran a 5k with a friend and surprised himself by doing well. He continued to run while racing bikes, and he met other members of the running community.
“I didn’t do any sports in high school—I did drugs,” Bickel says.
This was his first time competing in an athletic hobby.
One day while running a trail in Huntington, Bickel passed a few cross-country athletes from Huntington University, including Justin Edwards, Vinard Gibbs, and Kaleb Bickel. He struck up a conversation and asked if he could keep running with them.
“We were like, sure, we don’t got nothing else to do,” Gibbs, one of the runners there that day, says as he shares his first impressions of Bickel.
He was surprised when Bickel kept up to their mid-season pace.
“He’s just running, talking, got all the tattoos, like, who is this guy?” Gibbs says jokingly.
Bickel had the opportunity to introduce himself to their coach on another run with the HU team, and he was formally invited to attend their daily practice at 4 p.m.
But he was just a community member with a running hobby. He wasn’t on the team yet.
In the summer of 2019, Bickel was invited by Aaron Hendryx to run a max-mile (a mile ran with maximum effort) with the cross-country team. Hendryx is friends with one of Bickel’s coworkers from Menards—another connection he has to the team and the University.
“I had never done anything like that before,” Bickel states. “It was a really cool experience—I ended up going 4:53.”
The teams’ joking about Bickel joining the team became more serious that day.
“At that time, I had never thought about going to Huntington University,” Bickel says.
He was twenty-four years old. The team continued to push him to apply and join the cross-country team.
“Well, I don’t know what I would study,” Bickel said in response to the cross-country team’s prodding.
Bickel was enrolled at Ivy Tech to obtain an industrial maintenance degree. He found that many businesses would not hire him simply because he didn’t have a degree.
Bickel isn’t the only one to face this problem.
In “Where are all the High-School grads going?” published by the Atlantic, Alia Wong states, “While a job may certainly be an appealing alternative to an increasingly costly postsecondary education, the college wage premium has risen drastically since the early 1980s. This means those with a degree are likely to earn more and have a higher likelihood of being hired than their non-degree-holding competitors.”
Bickel states that he lost out on at least six different job opportunities that would have been career paths for this reason.
The week before school started, he made a call to Huntington University admissions asking if he could still enroll for the fall semester.
“I didn’t have an SAT score, an ACT score, or a GPA that was worth anything,” Bickel says.
He had to write an essay directed towards the board of directors detailing why he should be accepted to Huntington. He waited a few days for their response.
Then he learned he was accepted.
“I pulled over because I got the call,” Bickel says in reference to receiving the news that he was accepted to study at HU. “And I was like, ‘What the heck, like, God you’re awesome! This is crazy!’”
Bickel had never dreamed he’d be pursuing a degree or running for the cross-country team at HU.
“You have a feather in your hat if you go to Huntington University from Huntington North,” Bickel explains. “It’s expensive. It’s private. It’s a Christian University. I didn’t have that appeal to me to fit that narrative, so to come in was just awesome”
He certainly stands out among the typical residential HU student, but he is well-loved by peers nonetheless.
“He’s different, but in a good way,” Dazia Drake, a senior at HU.
“His influence on me and the people he’s around has always been positive,” Ben Humrichous, a junior at HU, says.
“He makes class more engaging,” Alyssa DeLibero, Bickel’s classmate and friend, says.
Bickel always loved the town of Huntington, but now the University has a special place in his heart too.
“I mean, I love it enough I got the logo tattooed on me.”