From the outside, Wesley Village in Denison looks like another neatly manicured senior citizen retirement home, but in truth, it is more than that. It is the repository of thousands of stories and hundreds of adventures.
Howard Earl Van Hoorebeke is a resident of Wesley Village and has been living at the facility since December of 2017.
Van Hoorebeke was born and raised in Parsons, Kansas. His wife, Carol, was from Helena, Kansas. They married in 1952.
“From junior high on, I worked with my father, who was a mechanic,” he said. “I also loved to draw, and in time became an illustrator.”
A short time after their marriage, they moved to Wichita, Kansas where he got a job with Boeing making drawings of airplane parts.
“For the next 14 years, I did drawings for the B-52 and the B-47,” he said. “I did blueprints and electrical diagrams. They started on a new design; so I got a top secret clearance and worked on that for six years.”
Then Boeing’s business took a down turn, and the company laid off workers by the score. Van Hoorebeke was left without work.
A trip to Dallas led to a job with General Electric’s nascent Apollo space program and a rapid relocation to Dayton Beach, Florida.
“They hired me immediately, and moved my family from Wichita, but they lost our furniture somewhere along the way, and they put us up on the beach, which my wife and two daughters loved,” Van Hoorebeke said.
Several years into this job, GE sent Van Hoorebeke to Washington, D.C., where they were setting up a financial analysis program for NASA. He shuffled back and forth in this assignment drawing panels that helped the NASA and GE planners understand the financial aspects of the Apollo program.
While with GE, which was across the street from the Dayton International Speedway, an associate asked Van Hoorebeke if he would do some work for NASCAR. Following the death of driver Glenn “Fireball” Roberts in a wreck and fire in 1964, Bill France Sr., the head of NASCAR, determined that accidents such as that could be prevented with a properly designed fuel cell for the stock cars.
Working with NASCAR Executive Norris Friel, Van Hoorebeke set about putting France’s idea on paper.
“The cell was made of steel and encased in a rubberize material,” Van Hoorebeke said. “It had a funnel shaped spout which held a steel ball weld into the cell. During a rollover accident, the ball would roll up the spout, blocking the pipe to prevent fuel from spilling out as the race car tumbled down the track.”
The original drawings were lost on the way to the printer, and so Van Hoorebeke worked through the night to replace the illustrations. The fuel cell became a NASCAR requirement in 1965.
When the job with GE came to an end, Van Hoorebeke became a reserve deputy sheriff in Volusia County, Florida. Then one day, he got a call from his brother, an executive with Weber Aircraft in Gainesville.
“He asked if I was still an illustrator,” Van Hoorebeke said. “I said yes, and he said I really need you out here.”
The job involved building models of every aircraft tail in the industry and soon evolved into designing aircraft seats, galleys, liquor lockers, posters, and advertising. Van Hoorebeke worked for Weber for 14 years before the company was sold and his job was eliminated.
“I was 62 when that happened, and I decided to retire but before that happened, I was talking to a friend, who was the manager of the new Walmart store in Sherman,” Van Hoorebeke said. “He asked if I’d come to work for him. I told him I’d work for him until I was 65 and then I’m out of here. Well, my friend got his time in and retired, and I was there another 18 years.”
After his time at Weber, the Van Hoorebekes moved to Denison, where they become devoted Yellow Jacket boosters.
Carol Van Hoorebeke died earlier this year following a long and difficult illness, and Howard Van Hoorebeke has come back from a minor stroke, but Van Hoorebeke’s story has not ended. He continues to tell them to residents and visitors at Wesley Village.
Edward Southerland is the Best of Texoma writer for the Herald Democrat. He can be reached at ESoutherland@HeraldDemocrat.com.