It has been 16 years since Ernest Hooper moved to the Brandon area to cover high school sports for the Tampa Tribune from its Brandon bureau. Four years later, he found himself at the St. Petersburg Times; over the years, he has gone from covering professional football to hobnobbing about town.
For Brandon Times' first anniversary, we turned the tables on the barbecue-loving man from Seffner we call Hoop. Over lunch at the Red Lobster in Brandon, we discussed the man behind the column, his culinary abilities and life's way of delivering much needed doses of reality at just the right time. He had the crab-stuffed flounder and I had the grilled mahi-mahi.
BILLIE: Now with the tables turned, tell me how Ernest Hooper, from Tallahassee, Fla., became "man about town" for Tampa Bay.
ERNEST: My dream job was to cover professional football. After going to work for the Times, I finally got my chance in 1997. I had a couple of seminal moments that made me think about changing my career. One was in January of 2001. The Super Bowl was in Tampa. I had been spending an inordinate amount of time on the road away from my family. I started thinking about getting a job where I wouldn't have to travel so much. Not necessarily out of sports but to stay closer to home. It was my turn to write the game story of the biggest sporting events in the history of the city. On the Thursday before the Super Bowl, my father passed away. He had been sick for quite some time and his passing was not a complete surprise, but we try to find meaning when we lose someone we love. I had to go home and help my mom. Lo and behold, when I got back the Times had put up a job opening for "man about town."
Very few people thought I would apply and I don't think anyone thought I would get the job. I submitted a sample column for my application and I had used anecdotes from my father's funeral. I later found out that those anecdotes had given my column the edge that got me the job. I guess everything happens for a reason.
When I'm out and about and people realize I'm from the Times, they say, "You know Ernest? I love Ernest. How does he pick his lunch candidates?"
Having lived here for so long, there were some people I wanted to know more about. At the same time, I remain open to suggestions from my editor, other reporters and readers. In the coming year, I hope to do stories on more ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
People feel like they know you when they have never even met you. How do you think that's happened?
I'm not sure. One of the most surprising things is that my columns are appealing to people when I write about my family and kids. Like when my wife complains that I'm not helping out enough around the house. It lends a human quality. It tells my readers I'm going through the same things they are, that I face the same challenges.
You love food. Doesn't it get boring eating out all the time?
That's the funniest thing I've ever heard you say. Not at all. I love food. When I was a sports writer I would find some way to make an analogy of a particular matchup and something to do with food.
I understand you sometimes help out and cook at home. What are your specialties?
I just try to fill their bellies. Pigs in a blanket, cheese spaghetti and I'm inclined at times to opening a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli.
It's surprising. Your dad was quite a cook wasn't he? You seem to have missed the boat on that one.
I don't know what happened. My dad used to cook exotic things like eggplant.
How can someone who loves barbecue so much not like to grill?
Cooking is something you learn from practice. My initial efforts were so painful, I was told to stop. There's an art to grilling. There really is.
Of your three children, Mathew (11), Ethan (10) and Madelyn (2), I understand that while you relive your youth through the boys, it's really Madelyn who controls the strings to your heart. She's got you.
That's true. I give her whatever she wants. My approach to parenting her is never let her cry.
I understand you pitched in and handled diaper patrol. Some dads don't even go there.
I had to. When Mathew was born, my mother-in-law stayed a couple of weeks. My mom stayed for a couple of weeks. I watched them and I didn't have to change diapers. I always made sure there was someone else around to do it. Then one day, there was just Mathew and I and I had to do it. I checked every room and there was no one else to change the diaper. Once you do it, it's not a big deal.
How do you manage to balance your out-and-about schedule and your family?
I try to say no sometimes. It's hard. I'm very appreciative of the opportunity I've been given. One of my greatest fears is losing this job. So I try to get out as much as I can. I try to set aside Saturday and Sunday. I'm home a lot more than when I covered the NFL.
What one thing would surprise our readers to learn about you?
That I love the soap opera All My Children and I've watched it since the ninth-grade.
I know that you were very close to both your parents and that you lost them fairly recently. What about your relationship with them inspires you in raising your children?
Everything. My greatest disappointment is that I can no longer call them to ask their advice on how to handle situations. My mom was somewhat of a stoic. Instead of being emotional, I try to use logic in explaining to them why or why they shouldn't do something. They'll tell you sometimes I get too emotional, but I try not to.
You and your wife have known each other for 20 years and have been married for 14 years. Do you ever have to explain things published in your column in the daily paper? I'm thinking particularly about the time you got home late and she met you at the door with a frying pan.
I think she's a good sport. I just have to make sure I don't get carried away. I'm an extrovert and she's an introvert. I have to be judicious about how much I reveal.
What was your most interesting Lunch with Ernest interview?
Ronda Storms. I keep telling my editor I have enough left over to do a second one. She was that interesting. People who see her at the commission meeting only see one side of her. She's a great storyteller. That's one of the things I hope my column does. That I show another side of a person that people don't already know.
Who would you like to interview?
Sandy Woods, owner of Brandon Dodge. He is one of the most successful African-American dealership owners in the nation. Also, Bill Noriega of Bill's Pharmacy. I thought the interview would be focused on how an independent pharmacy struggles against the chains. But I haven't been able to interview him because he's too busy.
What would you like your readers to know about you?
That I am extremely grateful for the opportunity the Times has given me. I remain humble and grounded. Being a father and raising my kids is very important to me and frightening at times. My wife's been extremely supportive and I couldn't have achieved anything without her. And one more thing, I'm not nearly as serious as this column might indicate.
DESSERT: A postscript from Billie
Ernest turns 40 on Thursday. He claims it's not as difficult as when he turned 30. Now, he says, he has matured and has learned to be grateful for his 40 years. Hoop is looking forward to many more insightful interviews _ and restaurant lunches.