ITHACA, N.Y.—When the man in the cowboy hat told a joke, people could not help but laugh. When he bragged about his son, they could not help but listen. And when they saw how hard he worked, they could not help but admire his hustle.

Eric Lovett, the hard-working handyman under that cowboy hat who was known by many in Ithaca, died late last month. The cause of death was not immediately clear. He was 63.

To many Ithacans, Lovett was known as a jokester, stopping anyone on the street to tell them a corny riddle — or two, or three. To those who knew him better, he was a man who loved his son and worked harder than just about anyone in town.

“If State Street was a person, it would be Eric Lovett,” said Josh Dolan, 45, a contractor in Ithaca who said he might owe his life to Lovett.

One day in summer 2021, Dolan was up on a ladder fixing the siding on his house in Ithaca’s Northside neighborhood and paid Lovett $25 to keep the ladder stable. Sure enough, as Dolan reached for a final piece of siding, he lost his balance and grabbed for the ladder while tipping backward. A reassuring voice came from the ground: “I gotcha, I gotcha.” It was Lovett, who kept the ladder steady.

“He basically saved my life,” Dolan said. “Best 25 bucks I ever spent.”

Dolan’s recollection of Lovett as “the Saint of State Street” was one of several tributes that emerged in the days since Lovett died unexpectedly on Nov. 27.

In a city with more characters than it knows how to handle, Lovett was quintessential Old Ithaca. He knew the city in and out. He traveled largely by bike or on foot, and often wore a leather jacket and a hat with a feather. He loved to sing — it was hard for him to resist an available microphone — and he knew how to make it by.

“Anybody who knows Ithaca knows that it’s a special place, but they often have a hard time describing why,” said Svante Myrick, who served as Ithaca’s mayor for a decade until February. “My theory is that what makes Ithaca stand out is we attract these characters, folks who would seemingly only exist in a movie or a play.”

That shaky ladder two summers ago was far from the only thing that Lovett kept steady.

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Johnny Lee, 41, who also grew up on the Northside, said that he first knew Lovett as a friend of his father’s — both were handymen — in the 1980s. But in recent years, Lovett became an inspiration for Lee to stay sober after Lee struggled with alcohol following his father’s death.

Lee, who now lives in Buffalo and works for Amazon, said he was on a recent trip back to Ithaca when he spotted Lovett in front of The State Diner, where he was holding a rake from some odd job. Lee immediately stopped his car and shouted “Lovett!” and Lovett responded, “Hey buddy!” The two embraced, and Lovett shared some words of encouragement that Lee said have kept him going ever since.

“We just shared a moment,” Lee said. “He gave me a little advice and told me to keep doing what I was doing. And it was just that. That interaction right there was it. The smile and encouragement was enough.”

Those words inspired Lee, who also helps to oversee several sobriety houses, to keep fighting his battle for sobriety ever since, he said.

Elbonee McLaurin, a singer who performs as SingTrece, said she met Lovett in 2010 in the way that many did: he approached her at the Mobil gas station and told her a joke. Then, he introduced himself and sparked a friendship that lasted more than a decade.

“And once he found out I sing, he would always sing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ or ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,’” McLaurin recalled. “Just knowing that we won’t hear his stories any more is a loss to the community.”

McLaurin said Lovett was a staple of open mic events that she hosted, but that he had been uncharacteristically reserved at the one last month and had told her he was sick, declining a hug for possibly the first time ever.

“He sat in the back and he was just not himself,” McLaurin said, noting that he had slipped out the door halfway through the event. When she saw him walking around town a few days later, he seemed to still be struggling, moving more slowly.

Lovett’s son, Eric Lovett Jr., wrote an open letter to his father on Facebook this week and said he had been amazed by the volume of support following his father’s death.

“I knew everybody ‘knew you,’ but I really underestimated just how many everybody was,” Lovett Jr. wote, adding: “A man that endured so many obstacles, but every day you woke up, put on a cowboy hat, and went out to work your butt off.”

Lovett Jr., 26, who is now in medical school, said that, as a child, he could always count on his father to show up to his youth sports games, albeit a bit late, and shout that he was his boy. His father showed him how to “outwork anyone and anything in my way,” he wrote.

“You were an angel sent to bless us all,” Lovett Jr. said. “Ithaca will never be the same.”

Funeral arrangements have not yet been finalized.

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs grew up in Aurora and has written for several publications since graduating from Ithaca High School, including The Ithaca Voice, The Ithaca Times and The Cornell Daily Sun. He...