Hugh B. “Tooker” Estep is one of those affable characters who make our community an interesting place to live. When he gets that glint in his eyes and shows his mischievous smile you know he is getting ready to tell you a tale. He is affectionately known as the “biggest liar in Clarke County”.
A life-long resident of Clarke County, he was born near Millwood on December 31, 1930. When he was five years old, his father died suddenly leaving his mother to raise Tooker and his two brothers, George and Thomas (“Bunky”). The family was taken in by an uncle, and his farm near Millwood became their home.
When he was a baby, he would cry in his crib for his mother to pick him up. It sounded like he was crying “tooka” so she started calling him this. Over the years, the nickname stuck and evolved into his current nickname of “Tooker”.
Tooker left school at a very early age to work on his uncle’s farm. He later took a job with Ritter Construction Company in Berryville. He was drafted into the U.S. Army on June 24, 1952.
He was sent to Indiantown Gap Military Reservation near Lebanon, Pennsylvania, for infantry training. Upon completion of his training, he was sent to Korea and assigned to F Company, 9th Regiment, 2nd Division as a replacement infantryman where he was immediately thrown into combat.
During the Korean War, the 2nd Infantry Division suffered more than 7,000 combat deaths. This is the highest total for any modern U.S. division in any war. The division was among the first units sent to Korea and was involved in the major battles of Bloody Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, and Old Baldy.
Tooker participated in several patrols into the “no man’s land” between the Allied and the North Korean lines. His unit was also exposed to concentrated artillery fire and attacks from enemy forces. During one attack, an artillery round exploded in the trench his platoon occupied killing and wounding several of his comrades. The concussion from the explosion cracked two of his teeth and damaged his hearing. He was sent to the rear where they extracted the cracked teeth and returned him to the front lines.
He was wounded again when a napalm explosion burned his arm and eye resulting in a partial loss of vision. Tooker was awarded two Bronze Stars for bravery.
He returned to the states in late 1953 to be treated for his eye injury. He was discharged from the Army on March 31, 1954 at Fort Meade, Maryland. He remembers collecting $300 in mustering out pay and returning to Clarke County. He had achieved the rank of sergeant when he was discharged.
After returning home, he went to work on his uncle’s farm. In 1961, he started working at the U. S. government facility at Mount Weather. He worked there until his retirement in 1993.
When asked about his reputation for telling tales, he smiles and says it comes naturally and people enjoy it. When asked about the biggest lie he ever told, he laughed and said, “I once told a fellow that I had quit lying”. He also pointed out that he was not the biggest liar in the county because several years ago he finished only fifth in a local contest to crown the biggest liar. He is still upset about losing the contest.
Tooker is well-known around the county and well-liked. He is a generous and kind man who freely shares the produce from his garden with friends and neighbors. He also enjoys collecting wild mushrooms and sharing these with friends. You can find him most mornings having breakfast with his friends at the McDonald’s restaurant in Waterloo.
He has been a member of Post 41 for several years. He is also active member of the Ruritan Club with 36 years of perfect attendance.
He is a unique individual who has a way of bringing a smile to everyone he meets. He is one of Clarke County’s true treasures.
(Editor’s Note: Tooker Estep died on December 17, 2009.)