Mark Hale (1954-2021)

Mark Hale died at age 67 on Monday, September 13, 2021.

Mark was loved by his wife of 45 years, Linda, his three children, David, Amy and Stephen, their spouses, Meredith, Kevin and Audrey, his seven grandchildren, Alexa, Kalli, Nathaniel, Lola, Madison, Willa and Thomas, and his sister, Susan.

Mark was preceded in death by his father, Thomas, and mother, Lola.
He will also be missed by countless friends, coworkers, extended family and Home Depot employees.

Mark possessed a truly epic collection of “dad jokes” long before anyone thought to coin that term. If the house erupted with high-pitched squeals and uproarious laughter, there was a good chance “Pop-pop” was chasing or teasing or playing a game of “gitsy bug” with his grandchildren. He loved dogs — from Jake to Duke to Timber to Winston and Sophie, and grand-dogs Wrigley and Emerson, Charlie and Mia. They were his kids, too, and he took such joy in playing tug-of-war or wrestling on the floor with all of them. The cats though? Well, every man has his limits.
Mark never met a stranger. He’d strike up a conversation with anyone, no matter how much it might embarrass his kids, from a server at a restaurant to the cashier at Wawa to that small army of folks at Home Depot who always knew what he was working on and the latest obstacles in his to conquer a project.

Mark loved engines. Born February 28, 1954, he got his driver’s license at the height of the muscle car boom. As a kid, he’d go with his best friend, Jack, to watch cars drag race down Kirkwood Highway. He believed the most important product of American engineering was the 389-cubic inch V-8 that powered his Pontiac GTO, which he raced through the streets of New Castle County, only occasionally needing to elude the police. In recent years, Mark and Stephen would go to classic car shows, and Mark reminisced about the thunderous cars he and his friends raced down the entrance road at Dickinson High School. The last car show they attended together, Nate tagged along, too — another generation hoping to be just like Mark.

By the time kids came along, Mark’s racing days were over (except for the time he nearly blew through a border check point at 90 mph while driving a Mazda across the country for David). His white 1965 GTO still sits in his basement workshop, the engine in need of an overhaul. The inspection sticker on the license plate reads “78,” the year David was born.

Instead, Mark found thrills watching Dale Earnhardt eviscerate NASCAR tracks across the country. Earnhardt exuded the traits Mark respected most: A tireless work ethic, a drive for perfection at his craft, a ceaseless determination to do the job the right way. “Finishing races is important,” Earnhardt once said, “but racing is more important.” That’s how Mark lived. The results mattered, but not as much as the work itself.

Mark grew up in his father’s shadow, following Tom into the garage to tinker with engines or into the workshop to hammer out plans for a home project. He mowed lawns and he changed oil, but he also rebuilt engines and restored rusted fenders to their former glory.

It’s no surprise he met the love of his life at work, too. Mark was the head cashier at a department store. Linda was the new cashier, and she saw Mark as a sweet boy who reminded her of Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days.” They were 17. They’d be together nearly every day for the next 50 years.

There was a time, however, when they were 19, Mark all but disappeared. He had a project, he said. Typical Mark, lost in his work. For Christmas that year, however, Linda got an invite to the house. When she arrived, Mark handed her a gift box. Inside, she found a set of keys. He then led her to the garage and revealed what he’d been working on: A maroon 1967 GTO he’d bought off the scrap heap and restored for her. A small stuffed Santa and reindeer were lined up along the hood scoop, and “Little St. Nick” by The Beach Boys played on the radio.

A week before he died, Mark sent a version of another Beach Boys song to Amy: “Don’t Worry Baby.” That was Mark’s mission in life. He took the worries and stresses and problems from the people he loved, and he fixed them.

Shortly before they were married, Mark and Linda scraped together enough money to buy a house that Mark completely renovated, adding a second story when David was born. There was another house and more projects by the time Amy came along in 1982. When Stephen arrived, in 1991, it was on to house No. 3 and countless new projects. Mark shoveled snow for neighbors without ever being asked. He covered the house in Christmas lights each year, and neighbors called him “Clark Griswold.” As paramedics left the house after trying to save his life, a neighbor pulled one responder aside. “Mark was a really good man,” they said.

Mark worked for more than 40 years at Astra-Zeneca, and coworkers remember his endless patience and flawless memory. He was as at ease correcting management on a critical mistake as he was pulling practical jokes with his coworkers in the plant. If a problem cropped up at 4 a.m., colleagues called Mark, and he’d walk them through it, step by step, as long as it took. Mark was like a safety net for those around him, his friend and coworker Jimmy Taylor said. No one worried about making mistakes, because Mark was always able to fix them.

After three decades, Mark decided to retire. It lasted less than a year before he went back, supposedly for a temporary project. More attempts at retirement followed over the years, but he always went back. He’d just wrapped up his latest temporary job in June, surely figuring there’d be another around the corner.

David grew up going to countless ballgames with his dad, including a road trip to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Cubs, even though Mark was never a big sports fan. Mark took David to his first concert, too — an impromptu decision made after a Phillies game, when a scalper offered a pair of tickets for $10. It was Neil Diamond, and Mark knew a deal when he saw one. David was never particularly handy around the house, but Mark was always there to help. When David and Meredith had a baby on the way, Mark came to Charlotte, North Carolina to help assemble Lola’s crib. He talked with Meredith for hours, going over plans for a bathroom restoration. On his last visit, he insisted on crawling through a sweltering attic to find out why the air conditioning wasn’t working quite right.

Mark always played a prominent role in Amy’s family, often shuttling kids from place to place when Amy was juggling too many things at once. Alexa and Kalli each have fond memories of rides in Pop-pop’s blue Suburban — the one he kept driving for nearly 25 years, because no vehicle was ever beyond repair — and along the way, he’d always impart some bit of wisdom about the world, usually a lesson he’d learned from his dad. A few days before he died, Mark surprised Kalli with a ride home from high school. They talked about life, just as they always had.

Eventually, Amy bought a house just a few blocks from Mom and Dad. Mark came by several times a day, installing new floors, expanding closets and remodeling bathrooms, eventually storing more of his vast collection of tools at her house than his. Mark rewired so many outlets, he went back and labeled each switch for Amy — even a few he called “future fans.” He taught Alexa how to change the oil in her car, quizzing her on the steps each time, and beaming with pride when she had the right answer. He taught Nate — his little “Bubba” — how to cut the grass and wash the car. Two days after Mark died, Nate was out cutting Grammy’s lawn because that’s what Pop-pop needed. On days when the weather looked bad, Mark inevitably sent Amy the same text message: “Storm’s coming. Might want to put down the patio umbrellas.” Before a recent thunderstorm, Amy wrote back that Nate had already done it. “Atta boy,” Mark replied.

In Stephen, Mark found his counterpart, an engineer with a passion for cars. In college, Stephen and his automotive engineering club built a car, and Mark helped paint it. Then Mark towed the car from Delaware to Nebraska for a competition. Stephen was late for his first date with Audrey. He’d gotten busy helping Mark install windows. Still, Mark and Audrey, now a doctor, shared a similar understanding of how the world worked. She’d explain some facet of biology, and Mark would nod and relate it to a machine he’d helped build. When Stephen and Audrey bought their first home in Baltimore – an old house in need of love and a skillful hand – Mark made the 90-minute drive nearly every day to fix sagging plaster, replace the 100-year-old wiring, and teach Stephen about carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. In the past year, Mark loved watching little Thomas toddle behind them, his play tools in hand, wanting to be just like Daddy and Pop-pop.

When his brother-in-law, Ed, suffered a stroke a few years ago, Mark made the three-hour trek to Virginia, day after day, to help him through rehabilitation. After Linda’s best friend, Carol, lost her husband suddenly, Mark sat with her on her back porch and made a promise: “Anything you need, I’ll be there.” Mark spent last spring refurbishing the old swing set and playhouse his kids had used, so Alexa, Kalli, Nate Madi, Thomas, Lola and Willa would have a place to play when they visited. During the COVID-19 shutdown, kids from the surrounding houses flocked to use it, too. On the top of the playhouse, Mark added an American flag. That was his favorite part.
He quoted Ernest movies. He loved Mexican food. He was surprisingly good at ping-pong. He loved Billy Joel and The Beach Boys and, recently, found an affinity for Yacht Rock. He loved real bacon and hated turkey bacon. He insisted on staying busy, but he’d stop on the side of a road to snap a photo of a pink sky at sunset or a field covered in snow. He was most comfortable in an old t-shirt and jeans. He took Linda camping for their honeymoon. He was honest. He was brilliant. He was kind. He was a million other things that no accounting of his life could ever measure.

Mark loved projects. He loved the work. But he hated endings. He was a perfectionist. If his work served as an expression of his love, there was no room for the tiniest blemish. He was happiest if one small job led to another, then another. He once promised to help David repaint his living room and proceeded to spend two weeks sanding plaster across three rooms before a speck of paint was applied. Keep working. Keep finding new problems to solve, new ways to make the world a little better. The race was always more important than where he finished.

So as we grieve our loss, please don’t let this be an ending. Celebrate Mark’s life now and often. Give him the gift he gave so many of us. Start a new project by telling stories and sharing memories. Talk to strangers and help your neighbors. And most of all, make sure the people you love always have someone they can rely on when the job gets too tough.

Due to COVID-19, the family is celebrating Mark’s life with a private ceremony. In the near future, however, they will host a larger gathering for friends, neighbors, coworkers, extended family, dogs and the lumber guy at Home Depot.
The family is immensely grateful for the gifts, food and flowers from so many wonderful friends. Thank you. For others wishing to express their sympathy, we ask you please consider a donation in Mark’s name to The American Heart Association or The Delaware SPCA.

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