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Jeff Kooyman: A life renewed

Jeff sank into an abyss of drugs and mental illness for years. But he has found a brighter future in Lodi with his family, friends, faith and music.

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Jeff Kooyman’s 1965 Lodi High School yearbook photo.

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Posted: Saturday, July 16, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 7:27 am, Mon May 7, 2012.

Jeff Kooyman stands outside the Chevron station on Ham Lane, a generic cigarette in one hand and his size-12 boot propped on a cement planter. His black Dyno-glide, the beach cruiser he pedals powerfully around Woodbridge and Lodi, leans against the stucco building. It allows him to travel from his job to church to his Woodbridge care home. It is his freedom.

He takes another drag from his cigarette as he watches the cars pull in and drivers step out. They look up at Jeff, the 62-year-old newspaper delivery man.

To many locals, Jeff is a burly 6-foot-1 fixture in the community. They see him on his bike and standing outside Salisburys Market and Jack in the Box day after day. His gaze is straight ahead. He is in the zone.

Passersby don't know that the big man who wears a canvas newspaper vest on a paper route has a college degree in electrical engineering, a big heart and fingers that glide over the keys of the piano, offering melodies that rise spontaneously.

Some might see Jeff as slow. Or checked out. But he's there, behind soulful brown eyes, constantly thinking about the places he's been, the lows he's hit, the God who has helped him overcome. The man who sometimes seems so simple is a man who writes poetic letters about religion and salvation. He is a man whose journey, failures and successes are always a song playing in his mind.

Years ago, he fell into a dark, dark hole.

But Jeff William Kooyman didn't stay there.

The country boy

Jeff has always been a country boy who enjoyed hard work and waking up to an early morning sky filled with stars. Even though small-town Lodi was all he knew, the young Jeff sensed that opportunity stretched beyond his family's Thornton dairy.

He loved to study, and was a straight-A student at St. Anne's Grammar School. He didn't fight much with his brother. And he did his chores when he was asked: washing cows before hooking them up to milking machines, and spraying the concrete with a power washer. Jeff rarely left the house without making his bed.

Back then — before high school and before his sisters were born — Jeff's cousins were his best friends. With bows and arrows in hand, their imaginations soared on the 600-acre dairy, and they eventually joined Thornton's baseball team together.

"I had a pretty good batting average," Jeff recalls, laughing as he thinks back to his 10-year-old self.

Jeff loved surrounding himself with nature, and would zip through the tall brush with his BB gun under his arm, hunting swallows and blue jays hidden high amongst old tree limbs. Other times, he would sit alone, watching beavers work noisily and snakes slither secretively along the banks of Beaver Slough at the back of the property.

Jeff didn't mind being alone. He was a little bit of an introvert, and everyone — including Jeff — thought it was simply his personality.

'I can still remember algebra'

The solitude of country life ended when the Kooymans moved to a West Lodi neighborhood when Jeff was 12 years old.

For Jeff, the move was exciting. He'd see more friends. High school was around the corner. He knew there was so much life to experience.

That was also the year Jeff discovered something that would be a part of his life forever: the piano.

His late mother, Darlene Kooyman, signed Jeff up for lessons. The sounds made sense in his brain. The motions of his hands came easily. He learned to read music and play entire songs.

Jeff still remembers the first melody he learned, a playful children's song called "Locomotive." He smiles as he sings the train lyrics and quirky tune, "Choo Choo, Choo Choo," as he mimes the piano keys with his fingers in the air.

Often at Jeff's side was his father, Bill Kooyman, who knew his son had many gifts.

"He was a natural," Bill Kooyman remembers.

Jeff loved the piano, but academics took priority. He was starting his freshman year at Lodi High School. He was nervous about the workload, making new friends and, because of his still small stature, the bullies.

However, Jeff thrived. He joined the swim team, which helped him bulk up to his 6-foot-1 frame. And he found a group of friends to hang out and drink beer with after school in vineyards on Sargent Road.

Jeff loved every part of school. He loved learning. His favorite class was Mr. Goodell's algebra class, where he enjoyed the challenge of numerical equations more than word problems.

"I got the best grades usually in the whole school," he said. "I didn't have to study real hard, but I can still remember algebra."

Seeing his passion for the mysteries of math and science, Jeff's mother told her son she would like to see him in a career like engineering.

An engineer. Jeff liked the sound of that.

The thought gave him power and a goal that would stay with him for years.

An electrical engineer

In 1967, months after graduating from Lodi High School, Jeff unpacked his suitcases in a University of California, Davis dorm room.

He was going to be an electrical engineer.

College wasn't much of a challenge for Jeff, either. He liked making his parents proud.

"They bragged about me to their friends," Jeff said. "They would say, 'Oh, Jeff is getting straight As,' and my mother would say, 'Oh, you're doing so well, Jeff.'"

But then, things changed. Drugs sparked an underlying mental illness that no one knew was waiting to erupt. His mind, once so strong, couldn't be trusted.

"He did well in college. He took tough subjects," Bill Kooyman said of his son. "It was a shame to see the sickness come."

Jeff was a senior at UC Davis when he started losing reality. Though he was about to walk across the stage in a matter of months and receive a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, Jeff knew something wasn't right.

Drugs. They came into his life in ways he never expected.

First, it was marijuana with his friends. Then it was amphetamines, street drugs like crystal and crank. Uppers. Constant uppers.

"I really enjoyed the cross tops — they feel like heaven ... just very at ease, like everything was all right and real happy," Jeff said.

He tried to continue, to be normal. But the drugs made the introverted student slide out of reality even more.

"It was hard for me to fit in with society anyway," he said.

Jeff would sit and stare into the sun for two minutes straight, never knowing he was acting abnormally. His imagination haunted him, too. Eerie devils would stare back at him, taunt him, when he would look into the faces of strangers. He fell into constant dazes and would imagine his brain transforming.

"I envisioned that my brain was just a ball of light, like a big light bulb," he said.

The drugs triggered a mental illness no one knew Jeff was born with.

"I wouldn't communicate with people at all," Jeff said. "I didn't think anything was wrong with me."

But Jeff was forever changed.

And everyone — especially his family — was caught off guard.

"They thought I was one mixed-up person, one poor boy," Jeff said.

From freedom to care home

Even as he struggled through the first year of mental illness, Jeff managed to enroll at University of California, Berkeley.

He was going to get his master's degree.

But there were more drugs. More bad influences. Classes were more difficult. He started sleeping on the streets. It became impossible to separate real life from the tormenting blankness of his imagination.

Jeff dropped out of UC Berkeley after only a few months. He needed a change. He needed to rethink his future. He needed to figure out what was going on inside of him. And he couldn't handle his mother and father seeing him fail.

He stuffed a backpack with a change of clothes and started four years of hitching rides across the country with strangers and on freight trains. He hopped rides to Oregon, Washington and New York. His mind felt clearer on the road. The only drug he said he did was marijuana offered to him by other travelers.

The freedom of that time is what he still talks about. It was a lifestyle that drew him in, confused him. He didn't know if he was that young person with a dream of being an engineer anymore.

"I didn't know whether to be a hippie or go straight," he said.

But Jeff found his way home to Lodi once again, to the family he had rejected out of fear.

With a college degree but no capability of getting a job, Jeff moved in with his parents. The frozen dazes were getting worse. He stopped talking completely. He could no longer function on his own. His parents were confused, as not many people could help them understand mental health in the '70s. When Jeff was 25, his parents made the difficult decision to check their son into a care home, where he could be monitored and given anti-psychotic medications.

For the next 35 years, Jeff went in and out of more than 20 care homes.

'We're more than father and son, we're friends'

The years are blurry, but not without successes. When he was 24, he found God in a Bible that sat on a nightstand at Merced Manor. That same year, he sat down at a piano again. He'd also given up street drugs completely.

When he was 54, he got a job delivering newspapers. Throughout the years, he's penned heartfelt letters about God and religion. He has grieved the death of his mother, and accepted his stepmother, Judy, as family.

For years, filled with pain and hurt, Bill Kooyman felt like his son was out of reach. But now, the father and son have a newfound respect and understanding for each other.

"He's very devoted to me, as I am to him. We're more than father and son; we're friends," Bill Kooyman said.

There is rarely a day Jeff doesn't pedal his beach cruiser to visit his father at the home he grew up in. These days, they enjoy simple things that are precious to each of them: Pancakes at Richmaid. A drive-thru burger. A trip to the dollar store.

With each step, Jeff has regained his life. Reclaimed his identity. All while trying to cope with the mysteries of the mind.

Up before the sun

Jeff wakes up at 4 a.m. in a Woodbridge care home bedroom with two twin beds, which he shares with a roommate. The room is simple, with a couple of dressers and calendars hanging on the walls. He has a cigarette — whichever brand is cheapest — and shares them with other residents who either don't have the money or freedom to go buy their own.

As the sun rises, he gets dressed, reads his Bible, maybe writes what he's feeling in a letter-to-the-editor.

In a recent letter, Jeff wrote: "God is majestic. He's king of everything and so should get our praises. ... Thank goodness God is good, since He holds our destinies in His hands."

Before his paper route, he'll ride the black Dyno-glide to the Chevron, where he'll get caffeine in a Diet Pepsi before tossing papers onto the doorsteps of Lodi homes.

Jeff is going on eight years as a newspaper carrier. It's his way of feeling like he's integrating back into society.

"I do it to make extra money, to keep me halfway legal," he says, smiling.

Corinna Berger, the Lodi News-Sentinel district manager, has gotten to know Jeff over the years. She says he's laid-back and funny, "a crack up," she says. He's good at his route, and the only complaint Berger remembers was a caller saying that Jeff was singing carols too loud at 5:30 one morning around Christmas.

The route earns him enough to keep up his supply of Diet Pepsi and cigarettes. Sometimes, he'll splurge on a soda at Scramblz or a Jack in the Box burger.

He picks up his newspapers at 5:50 a.m. There is a note for him, saying he's made a little over $200 this month. He unties the bundle, folds each one in a rubber band and sometimes takes a peek to check the weather or see if one of his letters to the editor made it in that day.

When his big canvas vest is filled with rolled newspapers, he pedals out of the parking lot and up and down driveways on Locust Avenue and Lockeford Street. The mornings are cool and fresh. Neighborhood cats stretch on sidewalks. Only a few cars pass on the road. It's Jeff's favorite time of day. Tired from the medication he takes, the morning air refreshes him and gives him the energy to propel himself through the sleepy neighborhood.

When his day's work is done at 7 a.m., Jeff returns to Chevron. He might have another soda. Or he might just watch the cars roll in and out. He enjoys the movement around him.

Jeff is a little bit social, in his own way. People not only know him as the man who rides around on the beach cruiser, but he has friends he visits almost every day at banks and grocery stores.

Many, too, know Jeff by the keys he plays on the piano.

In church, Jeff found the piano again. In the early years of living in care homes, he sat down and remembered where to lay his fingers and how to work the pedal. He remembered sounds and notes that he learned when he was that 12-year-old boy taking lessons.

The music helps him express himself. He started going from church to church, playing before and after services and whenever they would let him.

Now, on some Sundays, Kooyman plays the piano as members enter the congregation at St. Anne's Catholic Church. He wasn't asked to play, nor is he paid. He said he does it because he enjoys it.

Judy and Bill Kenney have attended St. Anne' since 1993. Now, they sit on the right side of the church. That way, Judy Kenney says, they can see Jeff's fingers move up and down on the black and white keys as he plays. She remembers hearing Jeff play for the first time.

"It was just my family and I, and we sat there in awe," she said. "He's just gifted — a phenomenal classical pianist."

Jeff makes up the music as he goes along, playing music that resonates deeply within him and transitions from light and sweet to dramatic and dark.

"What I've been through in life is copied right onto the piano. Emotion goes right through me and onto the keys," he said.

The man who rides the black beach cruiser may not have become an engineer, but he is an inspiration to the people who listen when he sits down at the piano. He is a man who cares enough about people to send Christmas cards to the 70 residents on his paper route. He finds simple pleasures in family barbecues, BLT sandwiches and Diet Coke. And when he writes, his heart and godliness shine through.

He fell into an abyss. But he didn't stay there.

Jeff Kooyman is still living his life.

Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at laurenn@lodinews.com.

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  • Bob Bechill posted at 12:16 pm on Mon, Jul 18, 2011.

    Bob Bechill Posts: 41

    This was a wonderful story. Great job Lauren. I often pass Mr. Kooyman on my morning walks to Tillies and downtown. He's a Lodi fixture, and I'm glad I now know more about him.

  • Tim Costner posted at 11:42 pm on Sat, Jul 16, 2011.

    Tim Costner Posts: 10

    Good story.

  • Nancy Cadena posted at 5:43 pm on Sat, Jul 16, 2011.

    Nancy Cadena Posts: 1

    I grew up down the street from Jeff and I remember the airplane rides he gave me. Swinging me high above his head, I touched the trees!

  • Wanda Easley posted at 1:28 pm on Sat, Jul 16, 2011.

    Wanda Easley Posts: 1

    The best paper carrier ever!!

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 8:06 am on Sat, Jul 16, 2011.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    I have listened to Jeff play piano at St Anne's. I too have sat in the row behind the piano to watch and listen to him play. It is pleasant music to my ears.
    I have always felt you can touch someone's soul through music. Jeff has touched many and has made the world a better place. Thank you Jeff!



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