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Rockey Lee Burkholder

Bonners Ferry’s Living Local Finest Person of the Year; a life well lived

By Jillian Chandler

“If Rockey was alive to accept the award, he would be smiling so wide he could eat a banana sideways. Then boast to everyone with bust-your-buttons pride, a rare combination of humble and proud.”

Last month, with much anticipation within the community, Bonners Ferry Living Local was excited to release the names of the winners of the 2020 Finest Awards, and to the delight of many—if not all—Bonners Ferry native Rockey Lee Burkholder was recognized as Bonners Ferry’s Living Local Finest Person of the Year.

Though bittersweet, as Rockey passed away due to complications from COVID in late 2020, it is a reminder to the Bonners Ferry community the lasting impression Rockey left on his neighbors, and that his legacy will not soon be forgotten, likely to live on in the hearts of all who knew him.

Rockey, who was born and raised in Bonners Ferry, living all 72 years of his life here, with his mother, and best friend, Valdie by his side. Unfortunately, Rockey was diagnosed with COVID the day after Thanksgiving 2020 and died on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7. “We were deathly afraid of Valdie or Rockey getting COVID. Valdie with her age and Rockey with a history of respiratory disease (asthma),” recalls Marty Becker, Rockey’s brother-in-law. “We figured if either got COVID, they would die. And if one died, the other would die of loneliness. Luckily, Valdie survived because of faith, family and community support. Her front door’s been a swinging door.”

During Rockey’s 10-day hospital stay, he received over 500 cards from his “fan club” in Boundary County and across the United States. The ER nurses at Bonner General took turns reading the cards to him over their lunch hour. “Thankfully Rockey got to hear and feel the love others had for him, and to be told of special things he’d been part of, before he departed,” Marty says gratefully.

“Rockey was love. Like love, describing Rockey would be nebulous but easily understood by anyone who met him,” shares Marty. “He was uncorked optimism, unbridled joy, overflowing with compliments for the ladies, never at a loss of warnings or insults for the gentlemen, and giving. People remember Rockey for dressing in vibrant colors, always waving or saying hello no matter the situation, engaging in light conversation or banter, and walking back and forth to town across the bridge.”

As Marty reflects on their beloved Rockey, before the internet, before mobile phones, before online news sources, he says that Rockey was THE source of news around town. Who was born, who died, what accident happened where, what business was opening up, what was closing down, who was dating, getting married, divorced, having an affair, a baby, building a new home, leaving town, movie and restaurant reviews … you name it. “The great thing was, Rockey didn’t let truth get in the way of a good story. We used to joke with Rockey that ‘the truth ran through this story on stilts.’”

When Rockey’s 95-year-old mother, Valdie, received the news that her son had been chosen as Finest Person of the Year, she sobbed. “As a family, it was a totem to all the good Rockey brought to Boundary County and a community that mothered him and treated him like family,” adds Marty. “The saying, ‘It takes a village,’ couldn’t be truer for Rockey.”

When asked to choose just one word to describe Rockey, “Rainbow” was Marty’s response. Why? “Because he was bright, appeared on days when you needed to see something special, and that there was a treasure of personal attributes at either end.” Though Rockey’s life was cut all too short, it is an important reminder to live each and every day to the fullest, treating others with kindness and a smile. Everyone loves to be noticed, listened to, complimented and sent away happier than you found them, and Rockey made sure to do his part in bringing a little ray of sunshine to all he encountered.

The fact is, there will never be another Rockey. It would be impossible. But Marty says that dozens of people who knew Rockey have suggested ways in which to honor him and continue his work within the community—with children and the elderly specifically. “There’s talk of a permanent memorial on the bridge, a Rockey Burkholder Day, or tossing a small stone in the river every time you cross the bridge with a positive thought or prayer for someone in need,” Marty smiles.

However you choose to do so, let’s all remember, and celebrate, Rockey Lee Burkholder, Bonners Ferry Living Local’s Finest Person of the Year for 2020.

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