Poplar Bluff educator, sports legend Tom Hoover dies
For years, whenever a student-athlete went out of town, Tom Hoover told them, "Remember who you are and where you came from."
After a lifetime of dedication to Poplar Bluff, Hoover died Thursday at Black River Medical Center after a lengthy battle with cancer.
He was 76.
Thomas Jay Hoover was preceded in death by his parents, Jay and Clara Hoover. Survived by his wife of 46 years, Susan, two children and their spouses Tommy (Nora) Hoover of Budapest, Hungary, and Jeana (Chris) Cooper of Pleasant Hill, Mo., and five grandchildren, Aaron, Laura and Julia Hoover; Jay and Cannon Cooper.
He didn't want a funeral. He didn't want people crying or feeling bad over him. There's already enough bad in the world. Instead, there will be a celebration of life in the near future at Westwood Hills Country Club, his wife said.
On Thursday morning, friend Buddy Godwin went to visit Hoover, who Buddy once said had never thanked him for anything in his life. Buddy planned on visiting him Friday, but something in him said to visit Thursday morning. He sat with his lifelong friend, a man he said was like a little brother, and the two reminisced about their more than 60-year journey.
As Buddy left the room, Hoover thanked Buddy for stopping by and for everything he had done for him in his life.
The doctor asked Hoover if he could eat anything? Could he drink a milkshake?
"Yeah, I'll drink a milkshake," Hoover said. "But don't bring me no chocolate."
It was his last meal as he passed away around 11 a.m., about an hour after he said thank you.
"He didn't suffer and he just went to sleep drinking his milkshake," Buddy said.
Bobby Godwin, Buddy's son, went to Myrtle's later in the day. Hoover ate there every Thursday, but on this day he didn't show. The staff asked how Hoover was doing and Bobby broke the news.
"Anywhere I've been the past year, they've all asked about Mr. Hoover and how he was doing," Bobby said. "I'm glad he was feeling good and of sound mind when he did go."
The Poplar Bluff football team will wear special stickers on their helmets during Friday's game at Sikeston in honor of 'Mr. Hoover.' He will be honored prior to the game, and then again at Poplar Bluff's next home game Sept. 14 against Ritenour.
Hoover was inducted into the Poplar Bluff Sports Hall of Fame in 1991 after turning down previous attempts to induct him. In 2013, he was honored as the Southeast District winner for the MIAAA Distinguished Service Award in recognition of his service to Interscholastic Athletics. The SEMO Basketball Conference named its lifetime achievement award after Hoover, who was a member of the first two teams.
In July 2017, Westwood Hills Country Club held a banquet in his honor for his years of service, during which they awarded him a lifetime membership. A few months later, Poplar Bluff High School named its entry road "Tom Hoover Way."
In driving down Oak Grove Road, one can either take the highway, or Tom Hoover Way.
"The first time I met 'Mr. Hoover' left a lasting impression on me," Poplar Bluff Athletic Director Kent Keith said in a statement. "Soon after my arrival in Poplar Bluff, he stopped by my office to introduce himself. We visited for quite awhile and then I walked him out to his car. When we got outside, there was only my vehicle and his vehicle left in the parking lot. Tom turned and walked the other way, stooped down, picked up a candy wrapper and put it in the trash can."
Said Poplar Bluff Superintendent Dr. Scott Dill, "According to an old African proverb, when an elder dies a library burns to the ground. We believe this is particularly appropriate for Mr. Tom Hoover. Mr. Hoover was a storehouse of knowledge and anecdotes throughout his long and storied career. Last year our board of education named our high school road, 'Tom Hoover Way'. In doing so, we honored not only the man, but his way of teaching, his way of coaching, his way of learning, and most of all, his way of living. The Tom Hoover way. He will be missed."
Hoover was an All-American basketball player for the Mules, scoring 822 points. Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp wanted him to play for Kentucky. Hoover, who said he shot 500 free throws every day before school, thought they'd hurt him there, that he was too weak to compete at that level. Instead, he went to LSU to play golf. He was a four-year letterman in both sports at Poplar Bluff, earning three all-state medals in golf and won the 1957 Missouri State Junior Golf Championship. He was a two-time letterman at LSU.
After college, he returned home and never let go. Hoover became a Poplar Bluff teacher in the 1960s, an administrator in the '70s, and was a coach of different sports at various times before eventually retiring in 1994.
As principal, he volunteered to drive the golf team to and from events in his personal car.
"He was good to all the kids. He would correct them, but they would laugh about it," Buddy Godwin said.
The Mules finished 30-18 in the one season he led the varsity boys basketball team.
"He knew every stat, every player, everything there was to know about the past 30-40 years," Bobby Godwin said.
Hoover officiated basketball games for decades and was Poplar Bluff's official scorekeeper the past 15 seasons, taking over after a 58-year run by Bob Gray. On nights the Mules were not playing, he could be found watching basketball at area high school gyms.
In 2013, he was too ill to attend the Poplar Bluff Showdown. It was the first game he missed in the 30-year history of the tournament.
"He'd ride on these school buses when he could hardly walk just to keep score for these teams," said Derek Rahlmann, who played on the 1995 Poplar Bluff state championship golf team. "His dedication to Poplar Bluff was unmatched and probably will always be unmatched.
"In speaking with some people in some of his last days, still asking how people were doing in basketball, softball, all the different sports. Just that caring of a person."
The Poplar Bluff Sports Hall of Fame tried to induct Hoover multiple times, but he always said no, saying it wouldn't be right considering he was on the board. He finally relented when the 1980-81 state championship golf teams were voted in alongside him in 1991. Hoover was an original board member of the Hall of Fame and served as its president from 2015-17, taking over for Sam Giambelluca.
"It's hard to imagine a Poplar Bluff sporting event or banquet without Mr. Hoover," said Brian Rosener, current president of the Sports Hall of Fame and editor of the Daily American Republic.
Hoover's father owned 303 Package Liquor. It was on Main Street back then and capitalized on the railroads. Hoover worked there and was also a caddy. He later was the golf columnist for the Daily American Republic.
Hoover became a board member of his beloved country club in 1968, was appointed treasurer in 1971, married his wife, Susan, the next year, and became secretary after E.E. "Bus" Carr died in 1983.
Hoover held that position until June 20, 2017, when he officially resigned at the very end of a 10-paragraph resignation letter that highlights guarding future NBA player Bill Bradley, The Tiger Lounge at LSU, and six Westwood Hills club championships across four decades, among other things.
"That's the darndest resignation letter I've ever read," Westwood Hills Country Club President Steve Rhodes said at the time.
As the longtime secretary, Hoover was the unofficial club historian, assistant superintendent and tournament director, to name a few of the duties he took on whether they wanted him to or not. Even as his health faded this summer, he got out to the club anytime he could.
"He would still get out and make sure our out of bounds stakes and course were marked correctly," said Westwood Hills Head Professional Jimmy Vernon, who also received his high school diploma from Hoover. "He came out and did the scoring for me on our last SEMO Match Cup play. He loved being in there doing the scoreboard and taking care of the end of the tournaments when everybody came in."
Hoover, who also served on the Missouri Golf Association Board of Directors, took over the Ozark Invitational in 1984 when it was down to 40 players. Now named after him, it features a 120-player field from around the region.
"He didn't care how great of a player you are. If you didn't call him and tell him you aren't coming, you aren't coming the next year," said Poplar Bluff golf coach Billy Pyland, who 24 years ago was the first person Hoover hired. "He had great integrity."
When the Ozark Invitational golf tournament was named in his honor, he joked at the time that someday it will be the Tom Hoover Memorial Ozark Invitational.
To which he quipped, "That's a mouthful."