Michael Hoke had the official honors to prove he was an outstanding science teacher, but the certificates can never show the love of learning he instilled in thousands of students. Hoke died Wednesday, January 13, at the age of 67 after dedicating his adult life to preserving nature and teaching future generations to be kind to the world.
Funeral services will be 11 a.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church in downtown Orange with visitation Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the church’s Praise Center. Arrangements are under Claybar Funeral Home of Orange.
Hoke stood 6-foot-2, but most people thought he was taller, maybe because of his large personality. He was quick with a joke or a tale and he remembered the names of students years after they had been in his class. Those students became teachers, school superintendents, doctors, lawyers, business owners and manual laborers. None of them forgot him. Learning was a life-time journey for him and he shared his information to everyone. Even adults learned something new from him during a casual conversation.
Hoke and his wife, Sandra, were married 47 years and lived in Orange for 40 years. They met while students at Lamar University in Beaumont. He stood her up after setting a lunch date. The next day she ran into him walking out of the biology building with a dead cat under his arm. He said he would make up the missed date, but bought her only a Coke at the student union. She later learned he had 26 cents in his pocket at the time.
Hoke loved biology and added education courses to his Lamar studies so he could teach. His first teaching job was in 1971 in Orange at what was then North Junior High School. He taught seventh grade science in the West Orange-Cove school district for years. His students remember his passion for science and making classes fun. A class might include going to a gully on the school grounds to look at tadpoles, insects and plants, and collect water samples to inspect under a microscope.
The Hokes moved to Orange in 1974 before their daughter was born. Sandra was also a teacher but stayed with the children for a while. To supplement his teacher’s pay for the family, he drove a school bus. His first assignment was driving kindergarten students in the days before an aide rode along. Entertainment was the way to keep youngsters out of trouble and he made up silly songs or told tall tales.
He grew up in Dickinson where his father was a union member working in a refinery. Unions were important in his life and he started an American Federation of Teachers chapter in Orange. He served as president and was outspoken before school boards and to superintendents in an effort to make sure teachers were treated fairly.
In 1978, he decided to spend the summer having fun. His idea of fun was educating students. Bios, a School on Wheels, was his brainchild. His friend and scientist Dr. Steven Lewis of Beaumont became his partner and they took select groups of junior high students throughout Texas to learn at places like Big Bend National Park and McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. A student, who had completed the Texas trip, was eligible to go on a Colorado trip the next year.
During his years of teaching and being a father, he managed to earn a master’s degree in biology from Lamar University and completed coursework for a doctorate in science education from the University of Houston. In 1989, he was named as the Texas recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Award for science and math, making him the top science teacher in the state. He received the award during a White House luncheon with President George H.W. Bush.
He became a nationally-known speaker and instructor for teachers. He spent three summers at Harvard University sharing his expertise. In addition, he regaled the others with Texas stories that were often exaggerated.
Hoke threw star parties to teach astronomy. He took students to places like High Island and Anahuac to study birds. Students never forgot catching birds in special nets, then holding them to put a tracking band on their legs for scientific studies.
Twenty years ago, Hoke established The Nature Classroom on a small plot of wetlands along Adams Bayou in Orange. The classroom was part of the West Orange-Cove school district and students spent class time outdoors immersed in nature. First he decided the bayou needed cleaning and he started the annual Bayou Trash-Off every February. Tons of all kinds of trash from large appliances to paper cups have been picked up through the years. To build the boardwalk in the wetlands, he took donations for a memorial boards. The first name on a board was one he chose—Rachel Carson, the biologist and writer who started the modern ecology movement. He helped begin the first recycling program in Orange.
The Stark Foundation in Orange decided in 2002 to turn the private park Shangri La, which had been closed for 50 years, into a botanical garden and nature center along Adams Bayou. Hoke retired as a teacher to become the first executive director of Shangri La. He oversaw the design and construction, insisting that it become an example of ecologically sound design and function. Shangri La became the first project in Texas to earn a platinum LEEDS designation. In addition, he insisted on Shangri La being a place of education with staff teachers and classrooms for science experiments. His time there included recoveries after Hurricane Rita, which knocked over hundreds of trees, and Hurricane Ike, which flooded Shangri La six months after it opened.
After 10 years at Shangri La, he retired again but didn’t quit working. He volunteered with the Big Thicket Association and piloted the boat Ivory Bill along the Neches River. Recently, he became the president of the Golden Triangle Sierra Club and had been longtime member of the group. He also worked with the Science Superstars program and Lamar’s Jason Project.
At home, he and Sandra raised Julia and Robert. Hoke coached youth sports teams and served as scout leader. In recent years, he has been known as the Paw Paw who takes the grandchildren outdoors to look at leaves on trees or flowers growing in the ground. He also let them band birds. Hoke was a longtime member of First United Methodist Church in Orange, but he most often found God outdoors, looking at the stars, the bayou, the trees, the flowers and the birds.
Hoke’s parents were the late Marvin Ford Hoke and Jesse Faye Walker Hoke. He was preceded in death by two brothers, Marvin “Butch” Hoke Jr. and Johnny Hoke.
Besides Sandra, he is also survived by his children, Julia Kathleen Hoke and husband Mike Boyle of Austin; and son Robert Walker Hoke and wife Michelle Ann Hoke of Baton Rouge. His grandchildren are Kate and Caroline Boyle and Ethan Walker Hoke.
Other survivors include his brother Jesse Hoke, nieces and nephews Dianna Walker and husband Brian, John Hoke Jr. and wife Kimberley, Jim Hoke, and Jennifer Hoke.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to First United Methodist Church in Orange or the Golden Triangle Sierra Club.