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February 5, 2013

Ferndale community remembers beloved volunteer

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

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Longtime Ferndale resident Dennis Hoeppner, one of the city’s most active volunteers, passed away Jan. 28 at the age of 72.

FERNDALE — When Dennis Hoeppner spoke, people couldn’t help but listen.

It wasn’t just because the throat cancer that he battled two decades ago had given his voice a distinctively froggy tone that caused people’s ears to perk up. It was because his words carried great weight and meaning, and they dripped with the passion and vigor of a much younger man.

Hoeppner, a beloved community volunteer and Ferndale resident for more than half a century, passed away on Jan. 28 after a second bout with cancer. He was 72. People from all over the city were impacted by the news of Hoeppner’s death, from his closest friends and family to those who only knew him casually from his involvement with various community events, political campaigns and charitable endeavors, or just as a lover of all things Ferndale.

As Jeannie Davis, president of the Ferndale Seniors, put it, “Everybody loved Dennis. There are a lot of people crying all over the city right now.”

Enjoying a slice of pizza in heaven
One resident who admired Hoeppner from afar was fellow community volunteer Julia Music, who spoke in tribute to him at the Ferndale City Council’s Jan. 28 meeting. She cited Hoeppner as one of her personal inspirations to become more involved in the community. She also shared her fondness for Hoeppner’s speeches at council meetings, in which he often proclaimed the importance of voting and encouraged Ferndale residents to head to the polls.

When Hoeppner made his way to the microphone, Music said, “His voice, barely a whisper, would silence the room. It wasn’t just the hush that would come over the audience that was so impressive. Fingers would stop clicking on keyboards, cellphones were placed by our sides, and the whole room leaned forward to hear the powerful words that came from such a soft voice.”

Hoeppner’s words served as a wake-up call for Music and other residents not to take the freedoms and privileges of living in a democratic society for granted.

“In his quivering voice that cancer would not steal from him, he reminded us to speak loudly with our voices in the voting booth,” she stated. “His speeches never failed to send shivers down my spine while reminding me of how privileged I am to live amongst Ferndalians who have worked tirelessly so that I can have the rights of a fair and just society. Dennis was a man who truly shaped Ferndale into the progressive city that I am proud to call my home.”

In conclusion, she said, “I hope tonight that Dennis is finally enjoying a slice of pizza and a beverage without the interference of a feeding tube, as I am sure that heaven looks a lot like Como’s, and the TV is tuned to a council meeting.”

One of Ferndale’s biggest fans
Como’s restaurant at Nine Mile and Woodward is the site where Hoeppner met his future wife, Marty, back in 1961. At the time, he was a young employee flipping pizzas behind the counter, and she was a Catholic schoolgirl looking for a bite to eat with her friends. According to Marty, it was love at first sight.

Dennis and Marty were soon married and purchased a home on Flowerdale Street, where they lived for the next 50 years. There, they raised their three children — two daughters and a son — while Dennis worked as an engineer for Ford Motor Company until his retirement a decade ago at age 62. Meanwhile, the Hoeppner family continued to grow, with Dennis and Marty welcoming five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren into the world.

When not busy with work and family, the Hoeppners pursued their love of dog shows, which Marty called “our biggest hobby.” At one point, they even owned a “Best in Show” Irish setter.

But they also spent a great deal of time volunteering throughout the Ferndale community, especially during their retirement years. They became heavily involved in the Ferndale Seniors group at the Kulick Community Center, assisting with Meals on Wheels and other programs. Dennis also began lending a hand at community events like the Ferndale Blues Festival, the Ferndale Pub Crawl, the Hilton Fall Festival and the Woodward Dream Cruise.

“Dennis and Marty were always helping out with anything and everything,” said Recreation Director Jill Manchik. “Without fail, they were the first ones to sign up for whatever anyone needed, and you could always rely on them to be there. It’s so sad to see Dennis go. Ferndale just lost one of its biggest fans.”

Hoeppner’s philanthropic efforts did not go unrecognized by the world at large, however. In 2008, he was named Ferndale’s Senior Citizen of the Year, and last year, he one-upped himself as the recipient of the city’s Citizen of the Year award. In addition, he and Marty were selected as king and queen of the Michigan State Fair in 2007.

During his brief tribute to Hoeppner at the start of the Jan. 28 City Council meeting, Mayor Dave Coulter praised him for his involvement in so many community endeavors. He then played a video for the audience from an October 2011 council meeting in which Hoeppner reminded Ferndale residents to vote in the next election.

“Ferndale is mourning the loss today of a very special resident and one of our most active volunteers,” Coulter said. “He enriched our city and the lives of everyone who knew him. He will be missed.”

Twenty extra years together
Hoeppner had already fought and defeated cancer once before. As Marty explained, about 20 years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer on his tongue and some of the lymph nodes in his neck. The disease severely damaged his voice and required doctors to slice open the area in order to provide treatment for his epiglottis. He later underwent surgery in which some of his chest muscle tissue was used to close up the wound on his neck, which resulted in the large lump that he would carry for the rest of his life.

But according to Marty, this grueling ordeal proved to be a blessing in disguise. “I am not angry about the way everything worked out for us — I am grateful,” she said. “We were given 20 extra years together after his first cancer went away. To me, those 20 years were a gift.”

The Hoeppners cherished their additional time together and, not knowing how long it would last, used it to become even more involved in the community. Unfortunately, when Dennis learned recently that his body was again afflicted by cancer, he was not as lucky as he had been the first time around.

Marty explained that the cancer was discovered “by accident,” and doctors told Dennis that it had already reached Stage IV and spread to his liver, lungs and kidneys. Just one month later, he was gone.

Marty was grateful that she was able to have at-home hospice care for Dennis during the last few days of his life. During the early morning hours of Jan. 28, one of Marty’s daughters awoke her to tell her that Dennis wanted her at his bedside. She knew that he could sense the end was near.

Reliving those final moments, she recalled, “I sat with him and I told him, ‘I love you so much. Thank you for marrying me, and thank you for giving me such a beautiful family.’”

During those last few weeks, Dennis began calling up family members asking them to come pay him and Marty a visit. Knowing that Marty was also in poor health, he specifically requested that their daughter and granddaughter from out of state come out to take care of her after he was gone.

“Even while he was dying, he was still thinking only of me,” Marty said. “He just loved me so much. He always thought of me; he always protected me.”

Making up for lost time
Hoeppner was well-known for being politically active in the community, especially during the later years of his life. He served as a precinct delegate for the Oakland County Democratic Party and worked on campaigns for U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin, President Barack Obama and others. Former Ferndale Mayor and Oakland County Commissioner Craig Covey pointed out that Hoeppner would devote numerous hours to his campaigns, always going above and beyond what was asked of him.

“Dennis was my No. 1 volunteer,” he said. “Of all the people who have worked on my campaigns over the years, he did more to help than anyone else, by far. He would literally walk one-third of the city all by himself, going door to door dropping off literature for me. He may have looked frail, but he actually had a lot more stamina than I do.”

Covey believes that Hoeppner epitomized the spirit of Ferndale. “He was just a really nice, sweet old guy,” he said. “He was one of those great Ferndale characters and personalities who make this city so special. He will certainly be missed by a wide variety of people.”

Covey’s prediction appeared to be true, as Marty was quick to note that her husband’s viewing Jan. 30 and his funeral service Jan. 31 were both jam-packed with guests from all over the community.

Davis was one of the hundreds of people in attendance to pay her respects to Hoeppner. Above all else, she said that she will always remember Hoeppner’s passion and devotion for philanthropy, no matter what may have been going on in his own life.

“Dennis was just tireless; he was always so bright and so full of energy all the way up until the end,” she noted. “With the Seniors, he was so incredibly reliable. He would help out with any event, anywhere and anytime we needed him. He was just so pleasant to be around, so sincere and excited about the things that he cared about, so genuinely happy and full of innocence. I always felt better after I talked to him — he always cheered me up.”

Davis recalled the profound effect that Hoeppner’s first bout with cancer had on him — how it motivated him to become even more active in the community than he had been before.

“He really wanted to make up for time that he felt like he had lost,” she said. “He wanted to make the most of the time that he had left and make a difference, and he really did that, in his own quiet way. Dennis was the type of guy who you didn’t pay a lot of attention to until he was gone. He was just always there, and now suddenly he’s not.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.