Tommy Mann Jr.
The Orange Leader
A standing room only crowd was on hand Monday afternoon to wish a friend, co-worker and environmental super star a fond farewell.
A special retirement celebration was held for Michael Hoke, executive director of Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, on Monday afternoon in the Discovery Theater. Dozens of friends, colleagues, and well-wishers were on hand to honor a man who has meant so much to the community and, in a respect, the world.
“Shangri La is in a good place right now,” Hoke said. “There’s an excellent staff here who will continue to take care of it and make it the best it can be.”
Hoke has been employed with the Stark Foundation and Shangri La for the past 11 years. He was instrumental in overseeing the construction of Shangri La and opening of the facility on March 11, 2008.
With numerous awards and accolades already collected for Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, Hoke began thinking of retiring in and get back to his other passion as an educator.
Prior to working at Shangri La, Hoke spent many years as a science teacher expanding the minds of young students and their awareness of the environment and world. Through his teaching, he created a “Nature Classroom” program which, in retrospect, helped serve as the basis of Shangri La’s mission today.
Walter Riedel III, President and CEO of the Nelda C. and H.J. Stark Foundation, credits Hoke’s idea in the 1990s to create a Nature Classroom in becoming a “successful reality” which is now Shangri La.
“Mr. Hoke’s Nature Classroom boat trips along the bayou often gave him a view into Shangri La and, on one trip, his path crossed with that of a group of landscape architects who had been engaged by the Stark Foundation to study the Shangri La property as part of future planning,” Riedel said during Hoke’s retirement celebration. “A connection was established at that time between the Foundation’s landscape architects and the local educator and a bigger picture emerged that united education with the gardens and nature.”
Riedel praised Hoke for helping make Shangri La into the world class facility that it is now known for and for making its programs the best in the region.
“Mike’s creative environmental science programming and mentoring of his staff have been key to the success of Shangri La,” Riedel continued. “People automatically associate Mike Hoke with Shangri La and vice versa. As Shangri La’s first managing director and as someone who has played an important role in the inception, development, opening and operation of Shangri La, that connection will always remain.”
Hoke said he will miss many aspects of his job at Shangri La, but he said it would be those who helped make Shangri La the best it can be everyday the ones he misses most.
The staff and volunteers of Shangri La, everyone who is involved, are the ones who I will miss,” Hoke explained. “We have the greatest people in the world working here and volunteering their time here. That’s what makes it hard to leave.”
Hoke’s passion for science and educating the youth of Orange County has once again called to him. He will bring back the Science Superstars, a program targeting eighth grade students across the county which offers them training in a variety of scientific areas and allows them to spread the enthusiasm and love of science to younger students at elementary and middle schools across the area.