Donnell Poke, personal trainer and newlywed, dies at 33

Ruben Onsu

After leaving her abusive ex-husband and restarting her life in Kansas City, Mel Denton was crippled by fear. She wanted the means to defend herself if anyone ever tried to hit her in the face or grab her by the hair again. Donnell Poke offered to help. He trained her […]


After leaving her abusive ex-husband and restarting her life in Kansas City, Mel Denton was crippled by fear. She wanted the means to defend herself if anyone ever tried to hit her in the face or grab her by the hair again.

Donnell Poke offered to help. He trained her in self defense and mixed martial arts. And he did so free of charge.

“He helped me so much find my confidence and strength and just be able to get back out into the world without constantly having fear,” said Denton, who quickly developed a close friendship with Poke and his wife.

“I never had to be afraid with Donnell,” she added. “I trusted him. And he knew exactly how to help me without causing me panic.”

Poke, remembered as an inspirational personal trainer, always eager to share his love for health and fitness, died suddenly on March 6 of an undiagnosed health condition. He was 33.

A little more than a year ago, Poke made training his full-time profession — a dream years in the making. And he had just married his wife, Laura Ehmke, during a small gathering in their home in January. It ended with pizza and beer at a local brewery.

The newlyweds were supposed to move into the house they’d just purchased in Grandview earlier this month. There’s still a large space in the basement that was reserved for Poke’s at-home gym.

“It’s all so unbelievable,” Ehmke said. “I mean, compared to everyone else I know in my personal life, he was the most athletic person. So it doesn’t make sense. And then on top of that, just getting married, just buying a house, just starting real life together.”

Born the first of two children, Poke grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, attending area public schools. Some of his closest friendships date back to Eisenhower Middle School, where he bonded with other kids over his love for comic books, anime and video games — all things he still enjoyed as an adult.

Growing up, Poke struggled with being overweight. He always wanted to “get buff” like the superheroes he and his buddies idolized, said Ty Rushing, one of his best friends since the seventh grade.

In his early 20s, friends said Poke was unhappy with the way he looked and felt. He weighed roughly 300 pounds at his heaviest. Determined to make a change, he started training with a co-worker at Walmart. They did push-ups, jumped rope and lifted weights in the workout equipment aisle during break time.

The hobby became an obsession and the obsession became a passion.

“Seeing him become like a physical specimen, you’re like, ‘Oh, I can do that too,’” Rushing said.

“Especially in Black families, there’s a lot of us that have health issues,” Rushing added. “He knew that. He knew that history, and he kind of wanted to break that cycle.”

He studied mixed martial arts and boxing, and quickly gained a reputation as the group expert on staying fit. After turning to a healthier lifestyle, he often found ways to encourage those around him to do the same. Until about a year ago, Poke was just giving away that advice for free, said Orilton Shumate, a middle school friend of Poke’s.

“He turned that into an actual business,” Shumate said. “I just wish he had more time to see his dream blossom into what he wanted it to be.”

Poke worked a few different jobs in early adulthood after graduating from Washington High School and attending Kansas City Kansas Community College. He then spent about eight years with the United States Postal Service, most recently handling mail in the warehouse.

He never cared much for the job, said Phil Tombs, a co-worker of Poke’s for many years who became a close friend. Together, between the hours of the workday and beyond, Tombs said they formed a plan to one day open the type of gym “where you would build gods”: Pantheon Fitness.

They never got the chance.

For Poke, training his students offered an opportunity to make their lives better and find their best selves. His wife, Ehmke, endured years of debilitating back pain before she began training in boxing under Poke. It went away and hasn’t come back.

Though he wore a muscled frame and trained people to fight, Poke was remembered as gentle and kind. Much of his leisure time was spent watching his favorite shows with his wife on the couch alongside the couple’s cats and dog: Lina, Socrates and Lunchbox. When their blind, 13-year-old pit bull fell asleep, Poke would carry him to bed.

On the night he died, Poke was alone in the gym after training some of his students. None of them thought he seemed unwell. But he later dialed 911 and was disoriented when the paramedics arrived, the doctors told family. He lost consciousness in the ambulance and never woke up.

In the weeks since his death, his wife and closest friends are still in shock and searching for answers.

Last week, Ehmke began moving their belongings into the Grandview home. She’s still unpacking boxes. Lunchbox, their blind dog, is starting to get the lay of the land.

In the basement, everything is already pretty much set up. She’s thinking of having yoga classes there with a small group of friends, including Denton, her husband’s former student and friend.

Poke is survived by his wife, Laura Ehmke; his parents, Bryan Poke and Annette Poke; and his sister, Corine Poke.

Other remembrances

Pearline Newsome

Pearline Mae Newsome, a former small boutique owner from Missouri’s Bootheel remembered for her fashion sense and expertise, died March 8. She was 76.

Born Pearline Green in 1945 in Sikeston, Missouri, Newsome pursued an education in business administration at the St. Louis Community College system’s Florissant Valley campus.

Always aspiring to own her own business, her family said, Newsome eventually opened a small boutique. She loved to shop, kept up with the latest fashions and was remembered for always having an abundance of clothes, shoes, hats and jewelry.

In 1967, she married her husband, Willie Newsome, with whom she raised three children. The two were high school sweethearts and shared more than 50 years of marriage.

Newsome later found another career as a personal banker, an occupation she held for more than 20 years before retiring.

Newsome is survived by her children, Yolanda Newsome, Gary Newsome and Marcus Newsome; six grandchildren; her great grandchildren; 10 of her siblings.

William Henry Bruce died March 19. He was 81.

William Bruce

William Bruce, a husband, father of six and retired General Motors employee, died March 19 in the Ignite Medical Resort of Blue Springs, Missouri. He was 81.

Born in 1939 in Cooper County, Missouri, Bruce’s elementary education began in the all-Black Sumner School of Boonville, Missouri. He later attended Prairie Home High School after segregation ended.

In 1956, he married Erma Adell Freeman, his wife of nearly 65 years. The family later relocated to Kansas City, where Bruce worked for General Motors for almost 20 years until retiring in 1986.

In his personal life, Bruce was remembered for his strong desire to show his family the world. The family’s many vacations were memorable, they recalled, including a cross-country drive to California.

Bruce loved fishing with his mother as a young man, family recalled, sitting along the riverbanks for hours at a time. The tradition continued with Bruce’s own children and grandchildren.

Bruce is survived by his wife, Erma Bruce; his children, William Bruce, Ward Bruce, Wade Bruce, Willa Bruce-Hayes, Warren Bruce and Wendell Bruce; 11 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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