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Gaston “Gator” Crittendon Doke: 1966 – 2019

Gaston “Gator” Crittendon Doke

Gaston “Gator” Crittendon Doke was born and raised in Bastrop, Louisiana, the youngest in a family of five. His parents were wood craftsmen, making boats and beautiful bedroom-suite furniture. Gaston learned early and had a tremendous gift for creating items out of wood. He drew with precision and created beautiful art.

His parents wrestled alligators, and at 12, Gaston wrestled the largest gator on record for his county and won. The name “Gator” stuck.

At 21 years old, Sonya Blackwell laid eyes on him and was immediately drawn to him. They married and Gator took on Sonya’s two small boys, BJ and Jason, as his own. He was then a carpet installer and a good provider. He was Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, and he taught the boys to hunt, fish, and whittle. Gator had a wonderful, contagious sense of humor that children and people of all ages adored.

He began a band in the 1990s called Gravel. Coming from a gig, they were broadsided, and Gator was pinned in the van. He was cut out and suffered mangled legs and many other injuries; he was hospitalized for a very long time. This began a journey of alcohol to deal with pain.

He moved to Texas for a while, and then thumbed to Santa Barbara, where he ensconced himself in Pershing Park in 2006. Locals called it Gator Park for the last 10 years.

Gator easily collected friends, and one of those was Jeff Shaffer, a local pastor and outreach worker, who asked if he could bring food each Wednesday night for a shared meal. Gator became his cohost. Gator was the mayor and gatekeeper at the park. Inclusive, with a large personality, his raspy voice and loud laugh drew everyone together. His openness ministered to hundreds of volunteers who continue to share and break bread together to this day. He further helped name Holy Chaos, a church for people suffering and struggling in this affluent city, hosted by Jack and Ruth Wilson and Gert and Margie Walter.

Thirteen years ago, I met Gator while providing clothing, tarps, and blankets. I learned to listen and not judge. Gator taught me so much about myself with his big, loving heart. He would say, “Miss Deborah Barnes, read me a scripture.” He would name what he wanted, and before I could open my Bible, he would quote the verse. Gator was like a brother that I checked on and loved. He launched me into more than a decade of outreach for those who suffer from homelessness. His infectious charm and voice will echo in my heart all my days.

Kathy Davis of Goleta told me she became a chaplain so she could visit Gator when he was jailed for his many citations for living in the park. “I grew to love him profoundly. I became Sonya’s close friend and went to visit her, became the godmother for their son Jason, and supported Gator’s sweet second wife, Filiz, through the final days of his life. I started by meeting Gator and ended my street outreach at his memorial 10 years later.”

Sheryl Stratman, another outreach worker, said it was easy for people to overlook the homeless people in our community because homelessness is so prevalent. “I feel so blessed not to have overlooked Gator when I met him in the park several years ago. Despite his addiction demons, Gator had a light that showed through that darkness. He had a larger-than-life personality, a Southern drawl that would melt you when he said your name, artistic talent that was mind-blowing, plus a heart that never stopped loving. The Thanksgiving we spent together with my family in my home was unforgettable.

“I was sad he never truly overcame his addiction, which ultimately led to his demise. I loved him in his brokenness and would have enjoyed seeing him operating at his full potential. I can only imagine.”

After 12 years apart, his son Jason found Gator in Pershing Park, and they were reunited for four years before his passing. Gator was so proud to see his son grown to be a man. He felt it completed him in his last days.

Gator could walk, but he found a wheelchair helped him panhandle better. He stayed in the wheelchair, which weakened his injured legs. Gator’s best friend was Shaky, who died at Pershing Park. This sent Gator into a deep sadness, but he then met the love of his life, Filiz Puran from Germany. She fell in love with his charms, and they developed a beautiful, deep relationship. They went to Casa Esperanza and got help. They married and got assistance with housing by Turner Foundation only two years ago. They adored each other the rest of his days.

Sadly, Gator fell ill from cirrhosis. He was called home Easter weekend. His loving wife, Filiz, and son Jason were at his side. A memorial held on May 1 in Pershing Park was well-attended by the many people who knew and loved Gator. He leaves a vast hole in many hearts, having touched all of us who knew him. Gator taught us all not to judge and not to assume that everyone suffering homelessness is the same. Each and every story is unique and needs a chance to be shared. Please, each one, reach one. 

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