Tripple Overtime: We’re gonna miss you, Matt
Last Wednesday started like most of them typically do for me. I woke up a 6 a.m., started the coffee, contemplated doing some pushups, decided that I was still too handsome to have to work out, and sat down at my desk to finish up a few stories before our 10 a.m. story deadline and my 10:30 shift behind the bar at Papa Grande’s.
I had heard about Matt’s motorcycle accident and coma two days prior, but after having known Matt for seven years and being well aware of all of his past brushes with death, I didn’t think much of it. Honestly, I wasn’t even concerned. If it was anyone else — anyone else — I absolutely would have been. But this was Matt Haley.
He had beaten cancer twice and addiction for more than 24 years and counting, survived after preparing himself for death when his legs gave out during a trek in the Himalayas, refused to back down at gunpoint to free a group of Nepalese orphans who he knew were being mistreated, and laughed at death countless other times throughout his 53 years on this earth.
A coma would be nothing for Matt Haley. He’d wake up in a few days and eventually make his way back to Delaware to tell us about yet another adventure, show us the pictures and invite us to come with him next time. Never, even for one second, did I entertain the idea that there wouldn’t be a next time.
I was reassured further when I got a text that Matt was reportedly in stable condition and being moved to another facility, which I chose to take as good news. I finished up my column and brief article about a skatepark grand opening that Matt was catering and donating all the proceeds to, put on my work shirt and headed off to Papa Grande’s.
I probably should have known something was up when I walked into an empty restaurant, but the surf’s been good the past few Wednesdays and I’ve been giving up my shift — so, not remembering, I told myself that’s just how Wednesdays go.
I started setting up the bar and before long Lexie, who was serving that day, walked in and right by me without saying a word and a look on her face that I never want to see again. That’s when I started to feel uneasy. Lexie was always up, smiling, laughing, joking and genuinely excited — even about double shifts.
I found out why she wasn’t this once when I checked my phone to find a message from the paper that Matt had passed away. I knew that they would never tell me that without having verified it and that it must be true, but, still, it was tough to believe. I said it out loud, just to make sure. “I think Matt died,” I hesitantly whispered as Lexie turned around to barely manage, “I know,” before welling back up.
Matt had a tremendous impact on Lexie, as he did with many of his employees. He would have done anything for any of us and, often, he did. For Lexie, he had set her up with a school that he was affiliated with in Nicaragua, to teach English this fall, and had even paid for her to do it. When she had to go to the emergency room a few weeks ago and he found out, he called her right away to make sure she was alright. She was OK then, but she wasn’t now, and neither was I.
I dropped the phone. Put my hands on my head and stood there for a second not knowing what to do. There was nothing to do. Matt was dead and his body was halfway around the world. The man that, to us, had become larger than life and consistently defied death had finally succumbed to it, and all we could do was stand there in one of his restaurants.
After a while I walked out to the deck and sat down next to Lexie at a table. Neither of us said a word. We just sat there and looked out at the bay. I remember looking down at my dark black shirt and it looking darker than it ever had before.
We kept the restaurants open to field questions that day and people came in, mostly to figure out what happened. I saw how concerned everyone was, and how much of an impact Matt had on their lives, and thought of how the same thing was probably happening at all of his other restaurants, too. People genuinely cared. They all knew Matt somehow, whether it had been meeting him for five minutes or knowing him for the past 50 years, and they all had a story they wanted to share.
Some of those stories had turned solemn expressions into smiles and even laughter, and that awful Wednesday behind the bar had shown me all the good that Matt had done in his life and how his legacy will continue to live on.
He was more than just our boss, the founder of the company that we work for, or even the world-traveling, motorcycle riding, fearless entrepreneur that we and the rest of the world had come to know him as — he was our friend. He knew us all by name, whether we had worked for him for 10 years or had just started. He knew where we went to school, what we were majoring in and what our talents were beyond the restaurant industry, and was always looking for an excuse to allow us to put them to use.
When I got the job at the Coastal Point, Matt tried to help me in any way he could. I couldn’t write any stories about him to remain journalistically unbiased, and he knew that, but that didn’t stop him from insisting that I get the stories that everyone else wanted first — even though I always had to pass them off.
When he won the James Beard Humanitarian Award and every major media outlet wanted an interview, he invited me to travel up to New York to cover it and even offered to pay for everything. That one was tough to have to pass on, but it again showed me what kind of guy he was.
It wasn’t just for me, either. He offered to help pay for anyone’s trip who wanted to go on one of his missions to Nepal, and for the school supplies for every single one of the many teachers that work for him. He was there to offer advice and guidance for anyone who was themselves or knew someone struggling with addiction, gave jobs to foreigners he had met in his travels, always gave everyone a second chance and would have gone to bat for any one of us, no matter the circumstances.
I got a chance to sit down with Matt a few weeks ago. He had sent me an email that he received from a Nepalese journalist, thanking him for his efforts in exposing orphanages that were mistreating children, and wanted to talk to me about it. We arranged a meeting in the Tequila Room at Papa Grande’s on what happened to be the same day that the new issue of Coastal Living magazine was delivered. Matt was on the cover, and he was reading the article when I got there 10 minutes early, not wanting to be late.
I recorded the conversation, which went on for nearly two hours. We avoided a lot of the stories that have been told before. I already knew them all, although I would have gladly listened to them again. He told me about his daughters, about why he started going to Nepal, about the time his life was threatened and he didn’t feel fear, about the time his life was threatened and he felt peace, about the struggle in Nepal and how hard he had to fight to make even the slightest progress there.
I asked him why he felt the need to do so much good, expecting him to say something regarding making up for wrongdoing in his past — but that’s not what he said. Instead, he told me that, for whatever reason, it was hard for him to experience joy for himself, so instead he sought to experience it through others.
It all kind of clicked for me when he said that, and I felt lucky to know Matt and to be in his presence. Here was a guy who was truly selfless, who everyone respected, who had everyone’s undivided attention any time he walked into a room and who everyone always presented their best selves to.
We talked a little more, and he gave me some contacts of journalists I could talk to in Nepal and signed a copy of the magazine for me. It reads: “Tripp, my man, thanks for friendship. Matt Haley.” Then I thanked him, shook his hand, and left him there in the Tequila Room, in his white shirt, jeans and flips flops, sipping coffee and flipping back through the magazine. He looked accomplished. He looked content.
I remember getting the feeling that Matt had done what he was supposed to do. There was a strange calm about him now. He had paved the way and set the precedent; he had a voice; and he had won the battles that he had taken on. For now, he was done fighting — or at least, looking for new ones.
A couple weeks later, he came into the restaurant on the day before he left for India. We were busy, and drink tickets were printing out non-stop, but the look of excitement on his face and energy firing behind his eyes drew me in. It wasn’t unusual for him to be smiling, especially when talking about one of his trips, but there was something different in his expression that I couldn’t figure out.
He told me he was leaving, where he was going, where he was riding and how high the altitude was as I ignored the drinks for a moment and couldn’t help but smile, too. He drank a quick limeade, tossed a hundred-dollar bill on the bar, and said, “Alright, I’m outta here, man.”
I shook his hand and said the same thing I do to all my friends when they’re going somewhere: “Safe travels.” He was already walking away but stopped and turned for a moment as a smirk drew across his face. “I’m never safe when I travel,” he said. And just like that, he was gone.
If you were to ask me how I thought the last time I ever saw Matt would go, I would have told you something just like that. Just like if you were to ask me how I thought Matt would go out, I would have told you something just like what happened.
Matt Haley was never going to leave this world gradually slipping away in a hospital bed. It was always going to be going full speed, flirting with death and, well, just being Matt. He was never supposed to burn out; he was always supposed to blow up.
While I wish he could have stuck around longer, I can take some solace in knowing that Matt went out the way that he would have wanted to and that I truly believe that he had already accomplished everything that he was supposed to accomplish. He had done things with his 53 years that most people couldn’t have done with 153 and lived his life how he wanted to live it.
Still, I’m sad that he didn’t get to see his daughters one last time, I’m sad that he didn’t get to say goodbye to all of us, and I’m sad that I’ll never get to hear any more of his stories as he comes walking in fresh-faced and wild-haired, asks someone for a cup of coffee and sits down to mesmerize us all once again.
Yes, Matt Haley the man is dead, but his legacy will undoubtedly live on. His companies will continue to employee hundreds of people and continue to grow to eventually employ more; the charity organizations that depend on his donations will continue to get them; and people will continue to walk into his restaurants and tell us about the time they met Matt Haley and the lasting impression he had made on their lives.
For me, I now realize that no matter how much good I am doing, that I can always be doing more — whether it’s for others, or even just for myself.
Matt had started an Instagram account to chronicle his travels and started using the hashtag #haleyslife at the encouragement of one of his employees. If you click the tag, you’ll see photos of Matt riding motorcycles, making funny faces for the camera with friends, scenic landscapes of places most of us will never go, food, magazine covers and Nepalese villages. As of late, you’ll see heartfelt messages.
But on his adventures, he would often use the hashtag #getbusyliving, as well, which is something that we should all try to incorporate into our own lives and remember Matt when we do. Buy the ticket, take the trip, start the business, write the book, paint the painting, say what you need to say to who you need to say it to, climb the mountain — do whatever it is you keep telling yourself you’ll eventually do, because tomorrow is and never will be, a guarantee.
We are gonna miss you, Matt. But thank you, for everything.