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Family: Artist had ‘no hestiation’ in saving girl, woman at beach

Odds are you’ve been touched by the artistic ability of Mark Stokes and didn’t even know it.

A creative, independent freelance artist, Stokes’ ability to manipulate color and attention to detail are mirrored on some of Covington County’s most recognizable landmarks. The Covington Arena sign, the murals of Mendoza’s Mexican Restaurant, and mascot-embellished gym walls in countless high school throughout the county are just a few of his many creations.

Family members say he was a guy who “when he made up his mind, he did it. No hesitation. No second thought.”

And his family agreed, it was just that thinking that made Stokes – with no thought to himself or his lack of swimming skills – that made him throw off his hat and dive into the Gulf of Mexico to save a woman and a family friend from drowning Saturday at Panama City Beach. Stokes, 36, was pulled by from the water by beach police officers and later passed away on Monday.

His mother, Susan Stokes, said Tuesday that her son “walked to his own drumbeat.”

“Mark was all action and no foresight,” she said. “The scary thing was that before he left the last thing I told him was to be careful because he couldn’t swim very well. I told him to not get in the water if there was a red flag up.”

Stokes’ girlfriend Cathy Huckaba, her daughter, Star, and her friend 12-year-old, Samantha Fowler, were with Stokes that day on the beach. It was supposed to be a fun day, she said. The group had met another family from Georgia and quickly hit it off.

“My daughter and their daughter and me and Mark were on the shore,” Huckaba said. “Samantha and the other woman were out in the water on the boogie boards. Mark and I are talking, and I look up and see Samantha was having trouble, and the other woman was trying to get to her. The water turned violent real quick.

“I said, ‘Look,’ and when Mark spotted (Samantha), he threw off his hat and went in,” she said.

“He never told me he couldn’t swim well.”

Others were waiting near the beach line, and when Stokes was able to get the girl close to the beach, he handed her off and went back for the woman. Everyone was panicking, she said. And when the woman made it back to the shore, Huckaba said she quickly realized Stokes wasn’t with the group.

“I looked up just in time to see his hand go under,” she said. “It all happened so quick. He had such a big heart. He did what he thought was right.”

“You know John 15:13 says, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ That was him – that was Mark,” Huckaba said.

His dad, Charles E. Stokes, said he and his wife were proud of their son’s actions.

“He was a very giving person,” he said. “We are very proud of him. Deeply saddened, too. The whole situation is incomprehensible. He always wanted to make us proud.”

Stokes will be laid to rest Thursday. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. with visitation one hour prior to the service at Hopewell Baptist Church.

He is survived by his daughter, Mercedez Stokes of Seattle; his parents; brother, Kevin Stokes of Atlanta; grandmothers, Christine Stokes and Evelyn McCord Lambert, both of Andalusia; and special friend, Cathy Huckaba of Andalusia.