Vernon Hankins was the kind of person who never hesitated to help those around him. Whether it was helping his students find their artistic voices or helping in his community, he was always there for others, with a kind word to lift them up just when life had pushed them way down.
“He had a way of looking at things just a little bit differently and changing the way you thought about them,” said Kristina Haffey Weaver, a 1995 graduate of Brick High School, where Hankins taught for more than 20 years. “He could always lift your spirits.”
“He truly cared about everyone,” said Rebecca Turner, a 2006 graduate of Brick who played field hockey for Hankins. “He made high school even more special.”
“I just wish I could thank him,” Turner said. “He made such a difference in my life.”
Hankins, 61, died on Thanksgiving morning when a tree fell on him while he tried to clean up his Nejecho Drive home from the impact of Hurricane Sandy. His funeral is set for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Church of the Visitation, Mantoloking Road, Brick, where he had been a parishioner.
Hankins had been a musician, a coach, an artist and a teacher, and had given unfailingly to his community -- whether it was in Nejecho Beach, the small neighborhood tucked in between Mantoloking Road and the Metedeconk River, where he and his wife, April, had lived for nearly 30 years, or the community of Brick Township High School, where he taught art and coached, but more importantly inspired his students to aim higher and work harder.
Condolence notes from around the country have been posted in the digital guestbook accompanying Hankins' obituary, and Turner, who attended his viewing on Monday evening, said the line of people waiting to pay their respects at Weatherhead Young Funeral Home in Brick extended well out the door into the parking lot.
"He was just phenomenal," said Turner, who was one of the team's co-captains her senior year. "He made everyone feel special."
When she suffered a knee injury that sidelined her for most of her senior season, Turner said Hankins went out of his way to make her feel like she was still part of the team.
"He even came up with special workouts so I could take part in them," she said, "and me made me his player of the year, even though I couldn't play."
Weaver said Hankins was the kind of teacher who strived to reach every student, even the ones who were taking his class just for an easy credit.
"He didn't have just one way of teaching," Weaver said, "it was individual to everybody. He could build your self esteem and confidence and get you to put it out on paper."
When someone was struggling with how to approach an assignment, Weaver said, Hankins would tell them to write what they were feeling, then use color to express it.
"He wouldn't tell you how to do it, he'd guide you," she said. By the end of the course, everyone had at least one piece of artwork they could be proud of, she said.
"I wound up with an amazing portfolio," she said.
Turner said Hankins was the kind of coach who was able to make practice fun while being serious about the game.
"He had a very dry sense of humor," Turner said, "and he could really make us laugh. But when it was time to play, he was serious about that."
"He taught me so much on the field -- teamwork, dedication and hard work -- all lessons that I still carry with me today and apply to my everyday life," Turner said.
Outside the school, Hankins was the kind of person who helped everyone, said a woman who is a fellow parishioner and volunteer at Visitation Church, where Hankins worshipped.
"Whatever was needed, he was there helping," she said.
Judy Durkin Scheller knew Hankins because he was the caretaker of the home she rented in Bay Head. But he had coached her younger brother, Todd, when Todd was in middle school and had been the caretaker of the house when her sister lived in it. She said Hankins was rather quiet when she first met him, but once they started talking about art, Hankins was very sociable.
"He just opened up," she said, "and could talk forever."
"He loved to talk about art," she said.
Hankins was born in Point Pleasant and lived in Point Pleasant Beach before moving to the modest ranch house on Nejecho Drive 28 years ago, according to the obituary in the Asbury Park Press. When he wasn't teaching or playing in a band, he could be found working in the art studio at his home that fronted on Mantoloking Road, or working on his home with his wife, April.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Alyssa, and sons David, and Donald and Safine Hankins, and granddaughter Nahla, as well as his brother, Mark, and sisters Debbie Hankins and Donna Hankins, and Donna's partner, Jeanne Jaramosia.
"I was looking back through my yearbooks to see what he wrote," Weaver said, "and I wish I had been reading these messages over and over through the years. He was a wise man."
"He invested himself in everybody and made them amazing," Weaver said. "There wasn’t one person I knew from high school who he didn’t touch. He changed their lives."