The Man Behind the Handlebars
For years, Howard Coker the cyclist was a familiar figure around Powder Springs. But maybe you didn't know of his other titles: the artist, the musician, the landscaper and the gentleman.
I have wondered about Howard Coker almost as long as I’ve lived in Powder Springs. As a writer, I’m curious about people and their stories. But when I first saw Howard eight years ago, I suspected his story might be a good one.
Turns out that it’s a doozie.
Many have seen him biking through town, but few know him. He’s not easy to know. He’s different.
As a young boy, he “took a bad fever” and was not entirely normal again. But as you learn about Howard, he becomes endearing and impressive in his own way.
He’s an artist. Never mind that he paints the same scenes of cabins, pickups and Hitchcock birds hundreds of times.
He’s a songwriter and guitar picker who served with Elvis in the army, where he was evaluated and found to be a genius.
“And you know what,” said his nephew, Bill Coker, "in his world, he really is a genius."
Howard even built an airplane in his backyard, forging the frame out of old shopping carts. The remnants, which include a mint-condition propeller and acrylic windshield, are still in the yard. If you look at it right, you can easily envision the aircraft.
Intending to power it with a lawnmower engine, he explained to cynical family members that it would fly because “it was all in the lift.” His sister Mable, now deceased, certainly believed him. She would pull relatives aside and beg them to stop him.
“He’s gonna get up there and then crash on a house and kill somebody!” she would exclaim.
Howard has long been a bicyclist, but he did have a car back in the 1980s. In fact, he’d paint it every few weeks with house paint and a paint brush. His ride changed colors depending on the shades he came across.
One day he ran the car into a ditch, and the police asked to see his driver’s license.
“He couldn’t produce one,” Bill Coker explained, "so he just walked away from the car. We never knew what happened to the car.”
Part of the beauty of Howard’s story is that he is well loved. His family accepts him, puts up with him, and now sees that he gets fine care at Kimberly Assisted Living in Dallas.
Some families would write-off someone like Howard. He can be frustrating and difficult to understand, but his remarkable family has pulled together around him.
“I know it’s what my daddy would have wanted us to do,” said his niece, Myra Coker Crawford.
Although he can no longer live at the family homestead on New Macland Road, he has become quite the ladies’ man at Kimberly. When I met him there recently, a female resident asked if she could join us and proceeded to get googly-eyed in his presence. Howard paid her little mind and focused on answering my questions.
I asked about his career as a landscaper, and he responded with a rapid-fire recitation of the botanical names of plants—dozens of them. Sounds like a genius to me.
Howard, who will turn 81 this year, has always been both a hard worker and a gentle man. The last two years have brought difficulties: a health crisis, the passing of several siblings, a robbery in his home, and the move into assisted living. But he keeps a perspective moored by biblical principles.
“It’s better to understand than condemn,” he said. “If you see someone in stress, you should help them, not judge them.”
He also believes that people need to be more courteous, kind and forgiving. “I can get along with everybody unless they are deflating or low-rating me.”
I wondered for years about Howard Coker, the mysterious town character on the bicycle. Now that I’ve met him and learned his story, I see a complicated man full of grace. I also see a wondrous man, one who makes me want to know more.
It’s like his airplane: You just have to look at it right to see it.
Lauretta Hannon, an author who was called the funniest woman in Georgia by Southern Living magazine, is a regular commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. She would like to thank Myra Coker Crawford, Bill Coker and Mark Coker for their assistance with this article. Hannon can be reached at email@example.com.