Warning: This is not an education or technology related post. I’m writing this to both help me process and also to share the story of a man that many of you might not know.
Yesterday, I said goodbye to my father. He was one day short of his 75th birthday which we celebrate today. He was a veteran, a father, a son, a brother, a husband and a grandfather. I had the honor of spending a large amount of my adult life with him as he and my mom moved close by when we had our second child.
First, a little bit about the Ray (the original “Mr. Hooker” as I would later introduce him to friends).
He was born and raised in Montana. He worked on farms and did many other odd jobs to help support his family. As one of 8 siblings, he lived in a partial underground basement house in Great Falls that had two bedrooms and one bathroom. When the Vietnam war came, he volunteered for service. He met my mom while at a dance at Ft. Bliss in El Paso and would ask for her hand in marriage a week later. It was love at first sight. Later he would be deployed and spend months fighting on the front lines. That war took a toll on him physically (agent orange would impact his heart and arteries) but also emotionally (he lost his best friend there).
When he returned, he and my mom eloped. Eventually, they would relocate back to El Paso and he began work as a guard at the Federal prison. He would get his bachelor’s in Criminal Justice and spend the next 25 years of his life working for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That meant a lot of moving around for us as a family which as a kid, we were upset about a lot. However, reflecting as an adult, that movement kept us open to making new friendships and embracing the differences of others.
Those were the small in-between moments, but he was also someone who like to bring joy to others.
He was extremely generous, but he never wanted any recognition of it. He would give me his pick-up truck when it was only two years old because as he told me, “I wanted a different car.” His love for large television screens meant that every time he would buy a new one, I would get the hand-me-down. But his generosity went beyond just his family.
He would regularly donate to causes he felt passionately about. He donated to his childhood church in Montana, gifting scholarships so that under privileged students could attend summer camps. “They helped me when I was a kid and didn’t have resources to go, so I want to help someone the same way,” he would later tell me.
During the pandemic he pulled me aside once and asked me if I knew of anyone out there struggling financially. I had a friend in college that recently got divorced and had lost her job. She was struggling with a broken-down car and raising two teenagers on her own. Without anyone knowing, he reached out to her bank and covered all her mortgage costs and bills for the entire year. Again, he didn’t want any recognition nor did he expect anything in return, it was the act of giving and helping someone that brought him joy.
While he liked to help people directly, one charity that garnered his attention was the Amaanah Refuge center. He said he chose them because he knew that with their organization his funds would directly impact a family or individual. I didn’t the know the volume at which he impacted this organization because he never shared how much he was donating. A few years ago, he was invited with other donors to a dinner thanking those that have helped over the years.
I got to be his date.
As we walked into the massive ballroom, something strange happened. Everyone knew him. We were escorted to the VIP table at the front at which point I learned he was one of their most generous donors. All this unbeknownst to me and his family. Below is a picture of us at that dinner.
He was a theologian and a word-smith. He would spend hours reading a variety of religious tomes from the Bible to the Koran. Religion always held a place of fascination and wonder in his mind and he could (and would) regularly recite passages to people, especially those that used religion to “act in judgement of others”. Besides religious study, he regularly filled out daily cross-word puzzles and later, I would get him hooked on Wordles. I joked with him at some point last year that I knew he was alive because every morning he would send me his Wordle score. He did his Wordle even after he lost the ability to speak just to let his loved ones know part of him was still there. Below is a pic of the last one he ever did just a few days ago.
Almost every memory of dad involves some form of laughter. He was always extremely quick-witted and loved teasing those he liked and loved. When I took my wife to his surprise 60th birthday party in Montana, she remarked at how much joy and laughter was in the house when he and his siblings got together. This wasn’t reserved for just family and friends, but also those on staff at the Heart hospital that took some much care of him in his final years.
During his final days, we weren’t sure if he would make it out of the hospital but knew that he missed his dog. We decided to sneak “Wookiee” into the ICU. Yes, his 6-pound maltipoo was named after a larger than life Star Wars character. As we came up the back elevators with a dog-holding purse, I noticed that the staff just smiled. They all knew what we were doing and apparently, someone asked the Director of the hospital for permission. Because of his impact and kindness to those staff, it was approved almost instantly. Here’s a picture of his final moments with Wookiee.
Yesterday, as we prepared for his final moments, the staff surprised us once again. We decided to celebrate his birthday early, knowing he might not make it. Part of that celebration was dressing up in Hawaiian clothes and playing some tunes from Iz. As we prepared for his final breathes we looked up in amazement as nurses and doctors filled the room, all wearing Hawaiian shirts themselves.
My mom shared stories of their life together. When then met. When they married. Where my sister and I were both conceived (yes, we are an honest and sometimes over-sharing family). And through the tears, once again there was laughter. The staff shared what a special place he held in their hearts but also each one had some funny story where he would joke around with them. As he took his final breaths, “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli (one of his absolute faves) belted out of the speakers. It was an amazing send off and all of us in the room could feel his energy surround us.
For those of us that are left behind, we feel his wake and the impact he had on us. We celebrate his memory and the legacy he left behind. For me, I can see the impacts he had on me through many of my own actions. He was a writer, who wrote a weekly column (called “Hooker’s Corner” of course) for the local newspaper. He even worked with my editor to proof my last book. While he enjoyed having nice things, he really enjoyed experiences. His love for travel and cruises infected me and my family as well. Our #HookerTreks every summer were a direct result of the trips I took with him as a kid. His kindness towards others, especially those that might not be as privileged, is a I legacy I hope to continue.
Dad – I’m sad you aren’t here to proof read this. I’ll miss your laugh. I’ll miss your advice. I’ll miss the joy you brought to everyone you came in contact with.
But most of all….I’ll miss you. Love you pops. Happy heavenly birthday.
Ray Hooker – April 13, 1948 – April 12, 2023.
Veteran. Father. Husband. Son. Grandfather. Brother. Loved by All.