Educator, environmental champion Michael Hoke dies at 68

Michale Hoke

Educator and environmental champion Michael Hoke of Orange died Wednesday, Jan. 13.

Hoke was active in several environmental and conservation organizations, including Golden Triangle Sierra Club and Clean Air and Water, and was set to serve as the local chair for Sierra Club for 2016 and 2017. He was also active as a board member and volunteer with the Beaumont Children’s Museum and the Science Super Stars.

Upon his death, many of Hoke’s colleagues spoke of the impact he made in life. President and CEO of the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation Walter G. Riedel III released a statement praising Hoke’s contributions to the community.

“My colleagues and I were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Michael Hoke. As the first director of Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, Mike was extremely instrumental in not only the planning and development of the Gardens, but also in presenting to the foundation’s Board of Directors the initial concept of a restored Shangri La.

“His contributions to Shangri La Gardens were numerous, but none was more important than the emphasis on education. Mike was a tireless advocate for education, and he touched the lives of countless students through his years as a science teacher, educator, and mentor.

“We at the Stark Foundation are grateful for the vision and leadership that Michael Hoke provided at Shangri La during its early years. We also acknowledge the numerous other contributions that he made to the Orange community both before and after his 2013 retirement from Shangri La.”

As a champion of the environment, Hoke recently spoke out against the proposed 105 Toll Road that would be built between Orange and Jefferson counties and plow over a portion of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Hoke appeared in front of local city councils and appealed to county commissioners to save the area’s fragile ecosystem.

Hoke was an educator for more than 30 years and worked as a science teacher and department leader with the West Orange-Stark CISD. Hoke continued to educate students and the public after leaving the district and becoming director of Shangri-La and on into his retirement as environmental education director of the Big Thicket Association (BTA) Neches River Adventures, a school program that affords students the opportunity to explore and learn about nature and the Neches. Hoke piloted the Ivory Bill, the Big Thicket Association’s 45-foot excursion boat that served as a floating classroom, and took area students out on the boat free of charge. The school program is meant to encourage children to spend more time outdoors learning about the importance of the Neches River and its ecosystem.

“We are totally devastated by Michael’s sudden passing,” BTA Executive Director Bruce Walker said of his friend and colleague. “Please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers.”

According to Walker, Hoke had been active in the association for years, dating back to being a young volunteer at the Big Thicket Museum in Saratoga, now the Field Research Station. Hoke was BTA’s leader of the committee to develop an environmental education center on the Neches River adjacent to Collier’s Ferry Park. He was recently elected to serve as BTA Secretary 2016-2017.

 “Michael was a superhero in all matters regarding education and working with youth in science and in environmental education,” Walker said. “He was well known across the nation and was often asked to speak to groups about his experiences and accomplishments in developing education and conservation programs.

“Michael’s passing is a major loss for the Big Thicket Association. He was so excited about the future of the Big Thicket Association and all the organizations that he touched that, when he spoke, you would also share that excitement. He knew how to motivate, and he knew how to teach. He had a major impact on his students and the many organizations that he served.”

Hoke not only impacted students but was also an educator of educators. In July 2015, he brought a group of science teachers on the Neches River Adventure tour to conduct water testing on Ten Mile Bayou, part of the Big Thicket Preserve as part of Lamar University’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences 20th annual Teaching Environmental Science workshop, which introduced Southeast Texas EC-12th grade teachers to local environmental issues through first-hand experiences. Teachers from all over Texas took part in the professional development workshop.

“If you (educate) students, you impact that particular student, but if you (educate) teachers, you impact hundreds of students and, over their career, thousands of students,” Hoke told The Examiner then.

— Kevin King contributed to this report.