Battered, but unbowed

The Baltimore Sun

The 18-hour workdays are gone. So are the early mornings spent hanging from the back of his sanitation company's garbage trucks.

But, state Sen. J. Robert Hooper said he is intent on returning to Annapolis for his ninth legislative session despite a series of medical setbacks.

Earlier this month, Hooper, 70, was hospitalized briefly after suffering a minor heart attack. He also had been undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer. He thought he had beat the disease last year until it returned in the summer.

"As long as the good Lord's got work for me, he'll keep me here," Hooper said in an interview at his home in Street.

The Republican senator, who served for eight years on the Harford County Council, won his third term this fall by a wide margin, which supporters say is a testament to the constituent service that has been the hallmark of his political career.

But amid the campaigning and candidate forums, Hooper was privately suffering, losing 25 pounds and eight inches of his colon as he battled cancer. Then, two weeks ago, he underwent a catheterization after feeling pressure in his chest, which he initially thought was indigestion.

Hooper said he is following doctor's orders and is in good spirits.

"I don't know how I'm supposed to feel with cancer, but I feel good," Hooper said.

He's had to scale back some of his busy schedule, however. That has meant less participation in the day-to-day operations of Harford Sanitation, his family's trash collection business that once covered as many miles as it had customers.

He purchased the company from his uncle in 1954 at the age of 18. The business now has more than 40,000 customers. While dismissing claims that his business has a monopoly in Harford, he also notes that he has bought out nearly all of his competitors over the years.

"We used to run over 100 miles to get to 100 stops," he recalled. "Then the homes started coming in the 1950s, and the new people didn't want [to burn their trash in barrels]."

Politically, Hooper has shown staying power. After being elected twice as a Democrat to the County Council, he was ousted by voters in 1990 amid a furor over a landfill. He resurfaced in 1998 as a Republican and won the seat in the state Senate held by William H. Amoss, who died in 1997.

In 2002, Hooper cruised in a three-way Republican primary despite a lawsuit filed by a former in-law days before the election that alleged he sexually abused her two young sons. No criminal charges were brought against Hooper, who vigorously denied the claims, and he settled the case out of court.

He shrugged off a challenge by Democrat Stan Kollar this year, capturing 69 percent of the vote.

"He's a real valuable member of our party and the community in general. He's definitely beloved," said Michael A. Geppi, chairman of the Harford County Republican Central Committee.

This session in Annapolis, Hooper will relinquish his duties on the finance committee and instead take a seat on the education, health and environment committee.

Fellow Harford Sen. Nancy Jacobs said the change should benefit Hooper. "It's a blessing from God," she said. "He won't have late nights. He'll be able to get a good night's rest."

To that effect, Hooper said he would stay at the nearby Governor Calvert House, instead of a rented condo, so he can walk to meetings. Jacobs said he often takes the stairs rather than the elevator in state buildings to build up his strength.

Hooper said he will not likely be introducing many bills, but he plans to work as a consensus builder behind the scenes. He doesn't plan to be slowed by illness.

"Once I'm down there, I'm full speed ahead," Hooper said.

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