Sheriff J.C. Hooper:  Life behind the Badge

As many in Nueces County know, Sheriff J.C. Hooper was appointed to his position in 2018. He is now running for this office. Taking a look into the personal life of a candidate often gives us a sense of the kind of man we are electing. This story appeared first in the November 16, 2018 edition of The Texas Shoreline News.

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The Hooper family on the day J. C. Hooper became Sheriff Hooper (Photo credit:  Travis Pace)

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                On November 1, 2018, at 11:00 a.m., John Christopher Hooper, stepped into the role of Nueces County Sheriff. County Commissioners appointed Hooper to finish out Jim Kaelin’s term when Kaelin retired October 31. His main duty is to ensure the safety and security of the inmates housed in the Nueces County Jail, a 1000-bed facility that is at 97% capacity.  However, it is a political position, one that will put the sheriff’s wife and family in the public eye, as well.  What the public will see is a solid family founded in faith, commitment, forgiveness, and love.  To know the story of this family is to know the kind of man who holds the highest law enforcement job in the county.

                Born in Abilene in 1959, Chris moved to Corpus Christi in 1960 with his parents.  His dad, a Quanah, Texas native, took a job at CCISD as the counselor and speech teacher at Cullen and later went to work at Del Mar College in the area of counseling and testing at West Campus.  Chris’s mom, a German immigrant who married Chris’s dad during the occupation of Germany after WWII, stayed home with her three boys until all graduated from King High School.  She then joined her husband at Del Mar where she worked in the area of public relations.  The Hoopers put three good people with extraordinary work habits into society.  One works in the oil and gas industry; one is an engineer who designs space suits for astronauts at NASA; and the middle child is a public servant who sees first-hand what happens when parents fail to give their kids the right “stuff” to become productive citizens.

                After working at various entry-level jobs, including that of a lifeguard for Corpus Christi Parks and Recreation and jailer at the Nueces County Jail, Chris joined the Corpus Christi Police Department in 1983. He served in various places as a patrol officer, one of which put him at the marina on the bayfront in 1989. The superintendent of the marina was experiencing problems with some of the shrimpers and asked Police Chief Henry Garrett for some help.  Garrett assigned Chris to the duty, which changed his life forever.

                “I was known as the Shrimp Police,” said Chris.  “It was a great assignment, and I did a lot of walking in the marina and visiting with people.  The owner of the Lighthouse Restaurant let us have an office in the lower level of the building.  I’d go to work before daylight to make sure the shrimpers were behaving.  Then, I’d go back to my office to complete my paperwork.”

                That’s where Chris was when he first laid eyes on the woman who would become his wife. “A pretty little woman and a big bear of a man came walking into my office with a huge bouquet of flowers.  The woman let me know that they were from out of town and looking for someone who’d rent them a boat so that they could throw the flowers into the water to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the passing of her mom. It was such a sweet story, and I really wanted to help them out, but I didn’t know of any vendors who’d do that,” he recalled.

                Chris offered to let them use one of his boats when he got off work at 2:00 that afternoon. The woman didn’t want to inconvenience him, but Chris wanted to help the man and woman. He happened to see the caretaker of the marina working on a rather large boat.  In exchange for taking care of the boats, the owners allowed the caretaker to take the boats out.  This was just the break that Chris needed to come to the aid of this damsel in distress, so he asked the caretaker to take them out to spread the flowers.  Chris never expected to hear from the people again, but he was wrong.

                “I was off work for a couple of days,” said Chris, “and when I checked in at the police station that was on MLK Drive then, I found a note in my mailbox.  It read: ‘Thank you for going out of your way.  Your friend was great.  We made it out into the water.  It was a beautiful day thanks to you.  My BROTHER and I greatly appreciate your kindness.  I am in town occasionally on business.  The next time I’m here I’d like to take you to lunch.’  The capital letters got my attention.  She included an address, and I sent a note back that simply said, ‘Lunch would be great.’”

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Chris and Cheryl, ca. 1990 (Photo by Janet Deck)

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                That was the start of this 32-year-old cop’s relationship with Cheryl, the woman who would complete Chris’s life.  Born in Jacksonville, Florida, she grew up in Clearwater, Florida.  Her mother was a secretary, and her father was a newspaper man whose job took the family around the country, including New York and Dallas.  “We even moved here for a while, but we always moved back to Clearwater.  Clearwater was like our touchstone,” said Cheryl.

                Cheryl came from a blended family.  Four of her siblings still reside in Florida.  One is a dentist who also treats exotic animals.  He appears on The WildLife Docs television show and serves as a consultant to the veterinarian staff at Busch Gardens and the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa.  Another is in banking, and two are retired. Her fifth sibling lives in Georgia and is a Christian comedian, pastor, and author.  Cheryl is very attached to all of her siblings and still finds her way back to Florida to visit them.

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Cheryl Hooper’s mom (Contributed photo)

                “I was raised by the most amazing woman you could ever imagine,” said Cheryl of her mother, Vivian Geyer, who had movie-star looks and an adventurous spirit.  When she was young, Vivian worked as a model for several agencies and even had her own modeling business. When she got older, she did secretarial work.  After Cheryl’s parents divorced, her mother did what most moms do; she sacrificed everything for her kids.  This woman, who was loved by all the children in the neighborhood and was the apple of her daddy’s eye, strove to give her children unforgettable experiences and teach them to live in the moment.

                “Once when we lived in Phoenix, she woke all of us up and drove us to Flagstaff to see the newly-fallen snow.  She was so full of life,” said Cheryl. “Then, when I was fifteen, she got breast cancer.  It was in the seventies, so not much was known about it.  The doctors thought they got it all with the surgery, but they didn’t.  The treatments were horrible.  She was so sick,” Cheryl said.  “If they had known then what they know today, she would have lived.”

                Ironically, it was the death of her mother that lead Cheryl to Chris.  “My mother loved Corpus Christi.  Back then, it was a beautiful little fishing village situated on Corpus Christi Bay.  This is where she wanted her ashes spread, which we did in 1988.”  A year later, Cheryl would meet Chris, fall in love, get engaged in the fall of 1990, and marry the future sheriff on October 12, 1991.

                Cheryl continued to work as a flight attendant for American Airlines after she and Chris married. The couple took advantage of the employee perks provided by the company and did a lot of traveling in the first twelve years together.  During this time, they wanted to start a family.  “For whatever reason, we just couldn’t seem to have children,” recalls Cheryl.  “It was devastating for me.  My only goal in life was to be a mom.  Bishop Carmody was at church one day, and I told him how we had tried everything humanly possible to have a child, and it just was not working. We were even considering adoption.  I asked if he had a special blessing or anything for us.”

                “He stopped and raised his hands over me, and he prayed a prayer that gave me goose bumps,” she said.   “Then he looked at me and said that he had done all that he could do and that the rest was up to us.  Hannah, our daughter, was born within a year of that prayer in 2003.  Colton came along in 2004.  After his birth, I quit my job as a flight attendant and became a full-time mom.”

                When Colton was born, Chris and Cheryl learned that their infant son had developed a potentially fatal condition. “Colton was three days old.  It was a Saturday.  The doctor told me that I needed to prepare to lose my son.  Our priest, Father Tom McGettrick, had everyone praying on Sunday.  They took another x-ray on Monday afternoon, and Colton’s body was already starting to heal.”

                Cheryl and Chris never failed to recognize the miracles that they had experienced.  They worked together to raise their children in a loving, stable environment.  Though Cheryl enjoyed the excitement of moving all the time when she was a kid, that was no longer the case.  She wanted to put down roots for the sake of her children.  She and Chris are proud to say that both of their children started school in Flour Bluff Schools in kindergarten and will graduate from there.   Both children have worked hard to be good at everything they attempt.

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Hannah swimming at Flour Bluff Natatorium (Photo credit:  Cheryl Hooper)

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                Hannah is a straight A student who aspires to one day become a brain surgeon.  This self-motivated, driven young woman is also an accomplished ballet dancer who danced with Corpus Christi Ballet for twelve years.  She gave it up this year to focus on her studies while continuing to swim competitively.  Hannah went to the state swim meet her freshman year and hopes to get there again this year.  She usually swims mornings and evenings and sometimes both, Monday through Saturday.  “Ballet was her life.  She loved performing.  She just shined on stage,” Chris said about his daughter, “but when a person pursues two disciplines, there comes a point in time when a decision has to be made.”

                Hannah finds the time to do some things that bring her joy.  She likes being in 4-H and received Reserve Grand Champion in her class for her Ag-Mech project in 2017.  She enjoys spending time with her friends like any other high school girl.   “She’s wickedly funny,” said Cheryl.  “Being on the swim team has given her a group of friends with whom she can cut up and act goofy.  When Coach Hutchinson gives them a break from their very intense practices, she and her friends just have fun together.  She also finds time to teach swimming lessons to kids in the Bluff at Parker Pool and at the natatorium, and she helps needy children get new shoes with the Soles for Souls project.  She likes serving others and giving back.”

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                Hannah’s brother, Colton, may have gotten a bit of a shaky start in life, but he has more than made up for it.  Colton was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society last year at Flour Bluff Junior High, which means that he has demonstrated excellence in the areas of scholarship, service, leadership, character, and citizenship.  He plays saxophone in the Honors Band where he often holds first chair, something that requires lots of practice and commitment.  In the seventh grade, Colton won the district championship in tennis and is well on his way to achieving that level again this year.  Like his sister, he has a terrific sense of humor and is very active in 4-H.  He won 2018 NCJLS Reserve Grand Champion – Market Rabbits and created a website for his 4-H club. “He loves baseball,” Cheryl said, “and he intends to play when he gets into high school next year.”  If Colton is anything like the rest of the family, it is fairly certain that he will do just that.

                The Hoopers enjoy being part of a community like Flour Bluff.  “I went to three different elementary schools, two different junior highs, and two different high schools,” said Cheryl.  “I love that our kids will have gone to the same school all of their lives and that they are part of this community.”

                “It’s all about the community,” said Chris.  “When we first got married, we lived in the neighborhood on the south side where I grew up.  I had the house, and Cheryl came along and turned it into a home.  Because of the work she put into it, we were able to sell it and move to the island.  That’s when I became known as the Island Cop.  They had the same sense of community out there that we have here in Flour Bluff.  Hannah started school at Seashore.  We attended church out there.  And, I even wrote for the Island Moon when it was owned by Mike Ellis.  It was great, but it was hard to go to Island Italian and have a meal without someone coming up to me and complaining about a barking dog, the broken-down car, or the abandoned boat.  I was their cop, and they had my cell phone number, one provided by thePadre Island Property Owners Association.  I answered the calls, and I did it with a happy heart.”

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Chris, on patrol on North Padre Island (Photo credit: Pat Eldridge)

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                “Mike Ellis had a vision for the island community that looked a lot like Mayberry,” said Chris.  “He reminded me of that when I would write an article that perhaps was too harsh, like one I wrote about young women getting tattoos.  That’s when he’d say ‘WWAD.’  It meant ‘What would Andy do?’  I took it to heart, and that became my guiding philosophy.  Andy Griffith would never write or say anything mean.  A WWAD philosophy would be to start at home with your own daughter, by guiding her toward making the right decisions whether it was about getting a tattoo or other or some other behavior.  The character of Andy Griffith is that of a man who shows strength through common sense and compassion.”

                The Hoopers agreed that changing society happens through parents tending to their own kids.  “This family is my vocation,” said Cheryl.  “I am blessed to have a job now that allows me to go to everything my kids are doing.  Our faith life is very important.  We don’t just have faith; we practice our faith through service to others.  We talk about values with our kids, about what they see at school, about setting goals, about how to treat people.  We have traditions unique to our family.  God gave us these amazing blessings, and every day to me is a treasure.”

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Chris with his parents, Hedy and Delbert Hooper, on graduation day, 1983 (Photo courtesy of Chris Hooper)

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                “I got my parenting style from my parents.  They did a good job with us.  My mom was key.  She was a little German lady who ran a tight ship. My dad worked all day at the school and then all night as a watchman at a pipe yard, so she handled us,” Chris said.  “As a police officer, I got snapshots of families all the time.  We’re always getting called into someone’s house to fix a problem, whether we have the ability to do it or not.  A young cop without kids of his own may not have the experience to help a family.  I matured a lot in my forties when I became a daddy.  I gained a new respect for all parents who did it the right way.  I saw that a big part of that is having that nuclear family and focusing on the marriage and the children.”

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The Hooper family, L to R:  Hannah, Hedy, Sheriff Hooper, Colton, Delbert, and Cheryl (Photo credit: Travis Pace)

                Hooper is not short on experience as an enforcer of the rules.  He started as a city lifeguard blowing a whistle to make people in the pool adjust their behaviors, and for the next 37 years he worked to change society for the better one person at a time.  He sees his job as sheriff as that of servant to the people, some of which are in the county jail and certainly do not want to be there.  At times, they are abusive and often very angry. Still, they must be fed, given their medicine, and have their needs met.  The new sheriff, like those before him, will be faced with more criminals and overcrowding at the jail.  It is a nagging problem that all sheriff’s struggle to solve.

                “The only way to solve the problem of jail overcrowding permanently is for all of us to quit creating criminals,” said Hooper.  He said this – not jokingly – but seriously. His experience has shown him that good people are created by good parents.  He and his wife are setting the example with their own children.  Who knows?  Maybe it will catch on, and the county jail will one day have room to spare.