Jim Hoopes

Jim and Merry Hoopes, of Northfield, are seen with their boys, Joey, left, and Jayson, at Citizens Bank Park for a Philadelphia Phillies game in 2011.

Photo provided by family

Jim Hoopes first made a public name for himself in the late 1980s, playing basketball at Holy Spirit High School. Then he went on to star again at Albright College, in Reading, Pa., where the 6-foot-6-inch kid from Ventnor was one of the top rebounders in the country among small-college players.

After Albright, James Hoopes III came home to South Jersey and Holy Spirit, in Absecon, as a teacher and coach. But when he’d been there a few years, he got a chance to join the State Police, and graduated as a trooper in 1998.

Still, he stayed with coaching, especially when his two boys, Jayson and Joey, were old enough to join baseball and basketball and more teams in Northfield — Jim and his wife, the former Merry Rich, moved there after they got married in 2000.

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And Merry — short for Meredith — has heard a lot about those public aspects of Jim’s life since he died suddenly one night last month while he was out for one of his regular runs on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. Jim’s latest assignment was in the casino investigations unit.

He was just 40, and his death — from a congenital, previously undetected heart defect — was a shock to everyone.

“He just took such good care of himself, it’s hard to believe,” says Merry, who recognized her husband from Holy Spirit, where she was a year behind him, but didn’t get to know him at all until they met again at their gym in 1998.

After one date, “I told my dad and my best friend, ‘I’m going to marry that guy,’” Merry said Friday, at the family’s kitchen table.

He was so nice, and they got along so well, they were engaged in seven months. And it was just “two years from ‘Hand me that weight’” to husband and wife, as Merry’s sister, Melissa Calderone, puts it.

And Jim always worked out, cross-trained and ate right, Merry adds — which showed in his 250 pounds of ripped muscle.

But along with the state championship-winning Little League coach and the respected State Police sergeant and the life of the party and the role model — which his old basketball buddy and work colleague, Rob Higbee, says Jim was to “people young and old” — Merry wants the world to know that Jim was also a great family man.

“He was our party, too,” she says, waving to the couch that Jim would fill up to watch a baseball game with his boys — Jayson is now 11, and Joey is 8 — flopped all over him.

Coaching was a great way to get time with his kids. But Jim also loved taking his family to ballgames, or staying home and playing board games with them.

“He just adored those two,” Merry says.

And they weren’t the only ones.

“Right from our first date,” his wife says, “as sweet as he was then, he stayed that sweet the whole time.”

A Life Lived appears Tuesday and Saturday.

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