Over the last 30 years, I’ve met plenty of characters in newsrooms, but by far my favorite was a reporter by the name of Joel Kirkpatrick.
He was a larger than life fellow, with a big booming voice and a barrel chest always clad in Mexican Guayabera shirts. And he wore hearing aids the size of bricks behind his ears.
A hole was drilled in the floor of his van under the driver’s seat. A hose with a funnel was inserted in the hollow, which enabled him to urinate as he drove on long road trips or just around town.
I first met Joel on my first day as a professional reporter at the Galveston Daily News back in 1988. I was all of 23. And I thought he was ancient. He must have been something like 55.
Joel, a competitive shotgun shooter, lost his hearing one blast at a time in an era when hearing protection on ranges was not as common as today.
He was a kind-hearted soul who operated his own outreach to the hard-of-hearing in Galveston, Texas. He would give a needy person a hearing aid and twenty bucks to get it fitted at a local hospital.
Whenever I would ask Joel how on earth he could afford to give away hearing aids, he would just smile and shake his head. It would remain a mystery until my final week at that paper.
Joel played up being a Texas good ‘ol boy. (He once weathered a hurricane sitting in a closet reloading shotgun shells with a kerosene lamp burning.) But the Joel I knew also would read Plato in his evenings at home.
He is the sort of fellow worthy of emulation. But my wife won’t let me drill a hole in the floor of my truck or load shotgun shells by kerosene light.
However, this past week, I decided to be a bit like him by giving a pair of hearing aids away.
About four years ago, I purchased a pair at Sam’s Club in Springfield, Illinois, from a zealous hearing specialist who promised me free batteries for as long as I owned them and vowed I could apply the full purchase price toward a trade, should I ever want to upgrade.
Hearing aids are expensive. They cost as much as some used cars.
I spent the next few years with the monetary equivalent of a Ford or Chevy tucked behind each ear and enjoying life. I better understood my three daughters high-pitched voices and heard well when I sat in the back of courtrooms covering trials.
When I looked about upgrading to a pair compatible to my cell phone, I was told by a hearing specialist at the store where I purchased them that her predecessor had made many promises he shouldn’t have and that they couldn’t honor his verbal commitment to apply the purchase price toward a trade.
I purchased a pair elsewhere.
But then I got to thinking: How can I bless a person in need with my old pair? I posted an ad on Facebook offering to give them to someone with a demonstrated need. Within minutes, two people contacted me.
I decided to give them to a woman who supports herself cleaning houses, cares for her elderly mother and has suffered a 50 percent hearing loss.
Things have changed since Joel Kirkpatrick was handing out those twenty-dollar bills for re-fittings three decades ago. Hearing aids now have proprietary software. And the vendor wanted $650 to prepare the hearing aids for someone new.
I sent an email to Bentonville, Arkansas, to one John Furner, the CEO of Sam’s Club. I explained my predicament and my desire to help someone. The next morning, I received a call from his assistant informing me they would waive the $650 fee and would provide a gift card to cover the cost of six months’ worth of batteries for the woman in need.
I wondered if Joel was smiling from above seeing someone walk in his footsteps.
And then I remembered how I learned how Joel was able to help all of those people. During my final week at the Galveston paper, Joel invited me to attend a Lion’s Club luncheon with him.
Shortly after we sat down, a man handed Joel a mason jar full of hearing aids. I asked Joel, “Who was that guy?” But Joel just smiled and shook his head.
I then turned to the fellow sitting on my other side and asked the same question.
His response: “Oh, him? He’s the local undertaker.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. [email protected]