To begin to appreciate the sudden and shocking loss of Joseph Neal Hancock — legacy grove owner, ubiquitous volunteer, Southern historian and, poignantly, amateur bicycling enthusiast — you begin here, a half-mile and then some from Townsend House Cemetery.
Here, if you weren’t among the earliest arrivals, is where you park, on the edge of another of Pasco County’s narrow, unpaved roads, among the four-wheel-drive SUVs and pickup trucks. So very many pickup trucks, signaling something else important: This is a funeral for a working man.
And so, despite the morning’s rising heat, you slip into your sport jacket — respect must be paid — and strike out around the bend, kicking up dust in pursuit of the old final resting place for some of the east county’s most notable pioneer families: Johnstons, Eilands, Bellamys and, by the dozens, Hancocks. So very many Hancocks.
It was inevitable, then, Joe’s earthly remains would wind up here, on this shaded hill overlooking gentle pastureland and sparkling Middle Lake beyond, beneath the canopy of moss-draped oaks. It’s just the timing that was all off.
Joe Hancock, the son of the son of the son of farmers, was just 57 years old — the new 35, as every baby boomer knows — and hardy. We mentioned the bicycle. With cycling pal Jim Pavek pushing him and their families’ scalloping adventures waiting at the other end, he could make Steinhatchee, a 140-mile trip, in two days. He’d been known to pedal to North Carolina and beyond.
And, he thought nothing of putting in a quick 10 miles most any morning before work … which is what he was doing that fateful Saturday at the end of May when things went tragically awry: Desiree Michelle Nathe, 20, state-champion high jumper, cresting a hill on Lake Iola Road in her Hyundai Accent and finding Hancock in her path, knocking him off his German Focus bike and into eternity.
He leaves behind Jane, his first, foremost and lifetime love, three sons — Jimmy, 29, his business partner; Jackson, 18, who graduated high school Friday; and Jeb, 11 — and countless scores of friends, most of whom appear to have stories that begin, “You can’t put this in the newspaper.”
They gathered a dozen deep around a simple maple casket last Wednesday morning, serenaded by nature’s summer sounds: the electric buzz of cicadas, cheeping cardinals, cooing doves, the mournful cry of a distant loon — all God’s creatures forming a proper soundtrack behind the brief narrative of an outdoorsman’s life as told by Bill Scaife, who pastors Wilderness Lake Church in far north Land O’ Lakes.
Hancock didn’t lend, Scaife noted. He gave, because relationships were more important to him than balanced ledgers. He didn’t laugh or roll his eyes when a suburbanite new to country life insisted on burying a week-old calf with a blanket and a bottle she’d used in a hopeless attempt to keep it alive.
And, not much more than a week or so before, on a moonlight tour of their grove in the company golf cart with Jane by his side, he spoke as a philosopher about divine blessings, regrets — he had none — and their life together. It was all good, he said.
The lad who once declared his intention to become “a legend in his own time” had grown into a man of achievement, generosity, refection and perspective.
None of this is to suggest that anyone besides his Creator would have suggested Joe Hancock’s work in this mortal realm was even remotely complete. He was, it bears repeating, only 57 and, by every account, vibrant.
There’s no telling what might have accomplished with another 30 years — which isn’t out of the question, based on the lifespans of the other Hancocks buried up on the hill — but even if it was only 30 years of adoring Jane, doting on grandchildren and inhaling the perfume of orange blossoms, so what?
Instead, we are left to grapple, prematurely, with what he has bequeathed: yet another sad lesson about bicyclists lured to east Pasco’s tight, curvy, hilly back roads and motorists who happen upon them unexpectedly.
“I don’t know why,” says Pavek, Hancock’s riding pal, “but I just think something good is going to come from this, for Joe’s sake.”
What that something might be, Pavek can’t say for sure. Adding broad shoulders to the roads that attract cyclists from around the region would cost millions the county doesn’t have. Pasco’s emerging trail plan doesn’t stress the hilly routes cyclists love. And, even Pavek says there is more than adequate signage to alert drivers about the likely presence of bike riders.
What, then? Maybe people will be more mindful now, he says. This is more likely the ephemeral wish of a bereaved friend, but within it is the nugget of an opportunity.
To make alertness stick, a perpetual reminder would be helpful. And, if that reminder is low-cost, so much the better.
So how about this: Lake Iola Road, where a good man reared his boys, loved Jane, caused to prosper the family business and met his untimely end, gets an honorary second name: Joseph N. Hancock Memorial Highway.
And, near the spot of the crash, a suitable plaque, affixed to a German Focus. So we remember, always, and drive, or cycle, accordingly.
Published June 8, 2016