At age 91, Dr. Gene Hooks has accomplished a lot over the course of his lifetime.
The former Wake Forest athletic director has been an All-American athlete, a professional baseball player, and a championship-winning coach. He’s taught at prestigious universities, helped found successful companies, written best-selling books, and even has a college baseball field named after him.
But if you ask which accomplishment he’s proudest of, he won’t talk about NCAA titles or business accolades. Instead, he’ll likely just point outside his window. That’s where, adjacent to his condo at Bermuda Village Retirement Home, you’ll find his most inspiring feat—a dazzling Japanese-style garden that he helped create.
The garden rises on a previously unkempt courtyard beside the Bermuda Village clubhouse. Hooks helped lead a multi-tiered renovation project that transformed the area into a Zen-like oasis, replete with lush gardens, rock sculptures, winding foot paths, water fountains, and a variety of oriental shrubs and trees.
Not only does the garden provide him with a better view out his own window, it’s something the entire Bermuda Village community can now enjoy.
“I wanted all the residents here to be able to use it,” Hooks says. “From the start, I always billed this project as ‘our garden,’ not mine. I get so much joy just looking out my window and seeing others enjoying themselves, whether they’re spending time with others or just sitting alone and thinking about life. That was always the goal—to make this a place of reflection.”
Finding a purpose
Hooks has lived in Bermuda Village for years, previously residing in a home on Bing Crosby Drive. He downsized into his current condo a couple years ago following the death of his wife, Jean, who died of pancreatic cancer. The two had originally met when they were students at Wake Forest in the late 1940s, back before Wake had even moved to Winston-Salem.
“She’d been my wife and my best friend for 64 years,” Hooks says. “I was pretty lost without her after she passed. I knew I needed to get involved with a project that had some meaning, but I wasn’t sure what.”
Hooks spent a lot of time looking out his window that first year in the condo—although the view wasn’t particularly great. Between his place and the clubhouse was an overgrown pond that looked like it hadn’t been landscaped in decades.
“It was a real eyesore,” he says. “No one ever went out there. Eventually, though, I started seeing what could be out there, not what actually was there. And what I saw was a beautiful Japanese Garden.”
He didn’t have any real landscaping experience, but he had plenty of motivation. “I knew the garden would fill a big void in my life.”
Before he could get rolling, however, he knew he’d need to get the Bermuda Village staff on board. He initially pitched the project to staff member Scott Hanes, who immediately jumped on board. Hanes contacted local landscaper John Newman about taking on the project. After a master plan was devised, Hooks took the rendering and showed it to folks in the Wake Forest community and residents in Bermuda Village, hoping to get some buy in.
From the start, Hooks had envisioned the garden as a place where others could honor their loved ones. To that end, he introduced the concept of “memory trees” in hopes of raising the funds needed to complete the garden. The basic idea is that people can buy the naming rights for a tree or other garden structure and have a plaque with their name—or a loved one’s name—placed next to it. “The fact that we received gifts from over 150 donors attests to the success of the idea,” Hooks says. “And by having the plaques, we’re able to identify the more than 50 trees and shrubs we’ve planted in the garden.”
Construction began in May 2017 and continued throughout the summer. Two rotting bridges were torn down and replaced with a Japanese-style bridge that spans the water. Pavers were installed to create footpaths around the pond. Trees, boulders, shrubs, and other natural elements were added. Enhanced lighting, new seating areas, and a variety of Eastern-themed ornaments were installed.
Slowly but surely, an area that had previously been an “eyesore” suddenly brimmed with new life.
Adding ‘the wow factor’
Construction initially wrapped up last fall, and a dedication celebration was held. At that point, more than $100,000 had been spent on the garden—but Hooks wasn’t satisfied.
“We determined that while it was really nice, it didn’t have the ‘wow factor,’” he says. “We needed to complete the garden areas around the pond, we needed much more ground cover, and most of all we needed more money.”
So Hooks went back to the drawing board. He decided to extend the fundraising campaign and got in touch with several people in the WFU community he thought could help. This included former IMG president Ben Sutton, whom Hooks had helped mentor when he was a student at Wake. Sutton was one of several WFU alums to make a sizable donation after Hooks came calling, allowing for a second wave of enhancements to commence.
“Dr. Hooks was the impetus behind this project financially and emotionally,” Hanes says. “It’s obvious working with him that, if he has a vision, he finds a way to get it done. He just has a knack for knowing how to deal with people, how to motivate and inspire them. If you spend any time with him, you start to understand why Wake Forest is what it is today.”
To fund the second phase of work, Hooks decided to create 19 “mini gardens” and sell the naming rights for each. He also hired local landscaper Jesse Hammond to pick up where Newman left off. Hammond added a number statues and stones to fill in the ground textures—pebbles, sandstone, pea gravel, and more. By the time the second phase wrapped, all 19 mini gardens and 65 memorial trees had been sponsored, with the total cost hovering around $200,000.
The garden was formally reopened in June—and this time, Hooks was fully satisfied with the result. That doesn’t mean the project is complete, however.
“I’m not sure it will ever be done,” he says, smiling. “It’s a work in progress. Every time we think we’re done, I’ll come up with something new.”
For instance, Hooks and the Bermuda Village staff recently decided to add a sound system that will allow them to have music at sunset. They’ve also added automatic doors that will make the garden handicap accessible.
In the meantime, Hooks is taking some time to enjoy the new view outside his condo.
“I get emotional just looking out there,” he says. “From the start, we said if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. We wanted to give the residents here something they could enjoy for a long time to come. And I think that’s exactly what we’ve done.”