Shangri La Managing Director Michael Hoke, this year’s lone Orange County finalist for the Press Club of Southeast Texas’ Newsmaker of the Year Award, was dubious of the phone call.

“I get at least five a week where someone wants to tie-in with Shangri La, and I’m a little paranoid about it,” he said. ‘I’d never heard of the award. And my secretary joked, “Oh yeah, ‘Newsmaker of the Year.’”

But the Press Club member on the other end was serious. Hoke was nominated for his efforts to re-open Shangri La after Hurricane Ike forced a temporary but lengthy closure. Hoke said he hates to take credit for the whole thing, giving a nod to Shangri La staff members and teachers, construction workers and many others.

The Newsmaker of the Year Award honors Southeast Texans who made a significant impact on the previous year’s headlines. Other finalists this year are Lamar University President Jimmy Simmons, “American Idol” contestant Michael Sarver, Beaumont City Manager Kyle Hayes and NBA player/Port Arthur native Stephen Jackson.

Finalists and recipients are voted on by Press Club members. The winner will be announced Friday, June 4, at the Press Club’s annual awards banquet – a fundraiser for journalism scholarships.

Hoke, 61, arrived in Southeast Texas in 1967 from Dickinson to attend Lamar University, where he met his future wife Sandra. He wanted to be a marine biologist.

“I had never planned to be a teacher,” he said. “But there wasn’t a great demand for marine biologists and I took a job as a teacher here at the first school I ran into off the interstate – literally. And I drove into that school and there was a great man named Roy Howard and he hired me on the spot.”

As Hoke came up through the West Orange district, he was able to start the Bios summer science program. This required him to study birds and other subjects he wasn’t familiar with, and through the years – and because he was as curious as the students he taught – he became known to kids and parents as the local “science guy.”

He’s had many opportunities to go other places. One year when he thought he just might, he was the Texas recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. This provided enough financing for Hoke to start the Natural Classroom program.

He tells his students that one goes through life collecting “chips” and sometimes you need to cash them in.

“Even if you fail, you can’t try unless you have those chips,” he said. Another time he thought of leaving the area, Dupont funded his Science Superstars program. More chips.

Sandra has taught other subjects but found preschool her greatest joy.

“She’s the best teacher I’ve ever seen,” Hoke said. “I’ve learned from watching her.”

The couple’s daughter Julia was class valedictorian and is now a doctor of psychology. Their son Robert attended college on a voice scholarship and works in the restaurant industry in Houston.

Michael has also been instrumental in community-wide “trash-offs” and recycling efforts. From 1999-2002 he was an instructor at Lamar State College-Orange.

Hoke holds a degree in secondary education and a master’s in biology from LU and has various facilitator certifications from Texas Tech and Harvard University.

His presentations include “Twenty Five Highly Motivational Science Inquiry Demonstrations,”  “Twenty-five Demonstrations to Turn Your Students On To Science,” “My Very Best Earth Science Demonstrations,” “So You Want To Become A Good Science Teacher” and “Green Construction, The Good, The Bad, and the Expensive” and “Birds of the Big Thicket.”

Publications include: “A Checklist of Birds of Sea Rim State Park” and “Tips for Successful Field Trips.” He also authored numerous grant requests and helped develop the Earth Week program at Shangri La. Other honors include the Texas A&M Outstanding Teacher Award.