“When you coming home, I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then… Gonna have a good time then.” — Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” 1974
The passing this week of all-round good guy Tom Hooker reminds me painfully of Harry Chapin’s popular song. Though Tom and I were very good friends in our high school years, we drifted apart because of geography and circumstances over the more than 50 years since.
We connected only a handful of times after we graduated from high school.
Tom went to work at Pet Milk, Pet Inc., Dean Foods and Bay Valley Foods and finally retired five years ago. He was a lifetime resident of the Wayland area and his wife, Ardith, was from Hopkins, whom he met shortly after he graduated. Her first name was a bit startling to some folks because Tom’s mother’s name was Ardis. So when she would tell people over the phone, “This is Ardie Hooker,” they had to understand the difference.
Perhaps my most pleasant memory of Tom Hooker was how hard we worked together as seniors to get our grades up in trigonometry, even visiting teacher Daryl Fleser at his home on a Sunday evening to get some extra tutoring. It finally paid off when both of us aced the final exam. We even went to Mr. Fleser to lobby for correction for one question and he eventually agreed with us.
Of course, there was the usual getting together up in my room to talk about sports, girlfriends and the tyranny of the high school social scheme. We did a lot of typical teen guy stuff during those years, often with Gordon Hudson and sometimes with Terry Parks.
My father more than once told me that when Tom was a senior defensive back in a game for the Wildcats, he moved in to tackle all-stater Dave VanElst of Middleville in the open field, but was thrown backward into the air by his collision with the bruising fullback. When I asked Tom after the game how he felt, he said he didn’t feel a thing, except embarrassment.
But when I went to Grand Valley State College, I didn’t come back to Wayland very often and the few times I did run into Tom, I became painfully aware that our interests and values were no longer the same. Tom was more interested in becoming a husband, father and working man. Meanwhile, I was discovering peace, love and marijuana.
The most meaningful way we re-connected came in 1981 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease, a cancer of the lymph system. Out of the blue at my Prairie Lake estate outside of Albion, I received a letter from him recalling our high school days and inviting me to his home when I next visited Wayland. I took him up on it during the Fourth of July weekend, just after I completed my second round of chemotherapy.
We quaffed more than a few beers, recalled old times and told tales about what been been happening since we went our separate ways. Tom very calmly and rationally gave me the story of how his mother bravely fought cancer and lost. Then he gave me a pep talk about beating cancer myself.
Obviously, I survived and the irony of what happened to Tom in his later years was not lost on me. The last time I saw him in the flesh was almost exactly a year ago when he and Ardith were returning on a bus from a senior citizens’ trip out East. I spoke with him briefly while picking up my wife and sister who were part of the same trip.
My last contact with him in any form was an e-mail last spring to Ardith while she and Tom were in Ann Arbor for treatment. I noted that his dad, Halden, was mentioned in my Bygone Days column that week for being a star speedster in track for the high school team. Ardith told me he was amused and remembered “Handy” told him about his interminable exploits in athletics in the early 1940s.
Tom was somewhat sensitive about his dad’s hearing problems and he inherited them. Like Handy, he was able to overcome the disability.
Like everybody else has said on social media this week, he genuinely was a decent, honorable man who was well liked, popular and an all-around good guy. I regret his passing and regret drifting apart. Rest in Peace, big fella.