The gray clouds kept the heat of the morning sun at bay as I stepped out of my red truck and into the Hooper Cemetery on the south side of town. I had never entered Hooper from the south.
For years and countless trips down U.S. Highway 275, I zipped through the town of 827 residents during the time I attended Wayne State College. It felt strange to me to enter the town from the south. The new bypass changed the once familiar route.
For another change, I got an earlier start. Well, earlier for me anyway. My watch read 8 a.m. as I started walking south down Elm Street toward downtown. By the time I arrived at the north end of town on Main Street, where the dike separates the town from potential high water, it was 8:24 a.m. The songs of cardinals welcomed me to the dike. Thirteen out of 16 cars I passed waved; one was the beer man with Omaha plates. Apparently, he knew the routine.
As I doubled back, on the north end of Main Street, I watched a groundskeeper mow a green on the Elkhorn Valley Golf Course. A tree-lined nine-hole golf course is impressive for a smaller town. To the west is the city park, swimming pool and soon-to-be fishpond.
The tall brick buildings lining the edge of Main Street appeared like a movie set from the 1950s.
At 9 a.m., I walked into the Hooper Tire and Repair service station and found a handwritten sign on the counter that stated Willy is buying today.
I looked at the men sitting around the table and questioned if Willy was buying today.
Willy was already gone, but the plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies he brought still sat on the table.
In response to my question, Lyman Wagner said, “Yep, it’s his birthday.”
Lyman, a farmer dressed in denim bib overalls, had his hands folded as they rested on the bib. He was laughing.
Ken Thernes, a retired Hooper postmaster, said, “Be careful with Lyman, he’s a guy you don’t want to know.”
A wave of laughter rolled through the store.
I then asked what the name Lyman means. “Liar,” piped in Roxanna Hobart from behind the counter. Another wave of laughter rolled through the store.
“My wife and I saw you on the street,” Ken said. “We knew you weren’t going to rob the bank because you were walking.” More laughter.
Gary Arp, another farmer in our group, sat quietly until I asked him where he’s from.
“I’m southwest,” Gary said in a tone that sounded like he was from either New Mexico or McCook in southwest Nebraska.
From McCook I asked? “No, southwest of town, two miles,” Gary replied. Another wave of laughter rolled through the store.
Lyman asked me about what I thought about the state of the world from all my travels. Well, you have to begin with hope, I said.
Lyman responded, “Sounds like me with my wife, I go home every day hoping.” Another wave of laughter rolled through the store.
They all agreed one of the best aspects of Hooper is that it’s safe.
“You can walk down the street at midnight and no one’s going to bother you,” Gary said.
An hour goes by quickly and soon everyone was headed out the door.
Next I poked my head in the grocery store where I met our state senator, Ray Janssen, making sausage back in the back room. When asked about Hooper, employee Jan Fanning said proudly, “The people are so friendly; they’ll help you in a minute.”
Back on Main Street I met Evelyn Schlueter. It was Tuesday and she was on her way to the senior center. Evelyn invited me to follow her and see the center, where I found Pegge Hertzfeldt playing polka music on her accordion.
I was given a tour of the building as men played pool in the back and women sat at tables visiting. As dinner approached a staff worker told me, “Unless you want to wear a plastic bib and be put to work, it’s time to leave the kitchen.” A wave of laughter rolled through the kitchen.
Wilma Otteman said, “You come back anytime,” as I headed out the door for a lunch appointment.
Hooper has two very good restaurants The Iron Horse and The Office Bar and Grill. I had been told earlier in the day about the Office Bar and Grill’s noon special. Every Tuesday the special is roast beef, homemade mashed potatoes and a vegetable.
Home run. This was the kind of meal I would daydream about when traveling across Africa.
Co-owner Jan Ranslem joked, “We tell people we are the best restaurant in Fremont.”
A stroll around town displayed well-kept yards, homes and churches. Passing the city park I asked Hunter Schlueter, 10, and Dusty Shepard, 11, what were they doing? “Frog fishing,” they replied with net in hand. Apparently they were getting a head start on the new fishpond. Hunter and Dusty both said the best part of Hooper was the swimming pool and, of course, having a place to frog fish.
As I walked back to my truck to drive home, a car pulled up next to me and someone rolled down the passenger window. The driver asked, “How was your day in Hooper?”
I replied that the people have a great sense of humor. “You gotta have that,” he responded as he waved goodbye.