To many people, Dennis was a great humanitarian, and that is true. But to me, he embodied the consummate entrepreneur. He had the innate skill to think far outside the box, envisioning the impossible, and the fortitude to make it happen. When others thought it couldn’t be done, he did it. He often told me his accomplishments were born out of ignorance rather than talent. For Dennis, bringing his ideas and visions to reality represented the reward. His joy came from the discovery and creation of something new that would benefit others. That skill blossomed in the Philippines as a blessing to thousands of people in the deaf community.
This talent was evident throughout his life beginning with Kool-Aid stands and puppet shows for the neighbors. He always looked for creative ways to provide support. As a teen, he and his friend, Jeff Butcher, started a concrete busting business where they learned hard manual labor isn’t always properly rewarded. He and another friend tore down old buildings to sell the “barn wood” popular among interior designers. The full-body costumes he fashioned of the San Diego Padre’s Chicken mascot and the Scheels Hardware Bear were a hit in Billings at ball games. In college, he sculpted beautiful wood birds using Dad’s band saw, created coin jewelry, fashioned replica Native American dream catchers, and even sold buffalo droppings under glass to tourists. After Dad bought him a broken-down trailer home to live in while attending Montana State University in Bozeman, he turned the lessons learned in restoring that wreck into a lucrative business of buying, remodeling, and selling trailer homes to help finance his education.
Dennis filled his life with out-of-the-ordinary choices and accomplishments. He also had a lot of failures along the way but that didn’t detour him from trying new things. Once life took him to the Philippines, he found an unending supply of opportunity, starting with a little shack in the middle of Tagbilaran called the Garden Café. Begun by his friend and Peace Corp coworker, Johnny Fisher, Dennis took the reigns, learned through hard knocks, the restaurant business, and created jobs and incomes for the deaf community. That formed the springboard to dozens of other business ventures that have supported IDEA, its’ students, and graduates for many years… all from the fertilemind of Dennis Drake. Donut shop, brick manufacturing, furniture building, fly tying, pizza wagons, construction business, sewing shop, hotel, recycling center, modular housing, and much, much more. All to the benefit of a once forgotten and ignored deaf population.
Things didn’t always work out. Exporting quality rattan furniture and handmade bamboo rakes from the Philippines to the US met with near disaster. Rice burning stoves never took off. Pizza wagons sounded great but didn’t find a home. Dozens of other ventures met with little or no success, but Dennis always seemed to find another idea to try.
I will sorely miss our regular phone conversations where we spent hours talking about business ideas and concepts. He always had something new on his mind he wanted to run past me. To most entrepreneurs, financial gain is the goal and the reward. To Dennis, the happy faces of his deaf kids and the satisfaction of watching them learn and grow as a result of his efforts fulfilled him.
People may think that the success of the International Deaf Education Association grew out of Dennis’ love for the deaf children of Bohol. I believe that is only partially true. I think his passion for taking not only the road less traveled but the road unexplored, is at the heart of IDEA’s success. Without that vision and willingness to take enormous risks in the face of overwhelming opposition, IDEA would never have flourished. Dennis leaves behind a great legacy in that organization. His creativity and adventurous spirit will be hard to replace.
He and Marilou also produced two fine sons that exhibit many of the same traits as their father. I have no doubt that they will make their mark as well.
Dennis made the world a better place with his presence. We will miss him but I smile every time I picture his face.