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“I was dreamin’ when I wrote this,forgive me if it goes astray.” -Prince
Dreaming? More like a nightmare that I can’t wake up from. A bad dream that started on Wednesday, October 10th, 2018 when my friend Dave called me quite randomly as I was cleaning up after dinner to tell me Matt Bair had passed away.
If you’re reading this and wonder who I am and how I know Matt, my name is Don Kowalewski, one of Matt’s fraternity brothers from college. Worry not. I’m not about to recount our times together drunk at keg parties or Matt narrowly escaping the law. Those stories exist but don’t need to be retold.
You might also be wondering why I specifically mentioned we were fraternity brothers? Why didn’t I just call him my friend? For whatever reason, my fraternity brothers and I all became lifelong friends – friendships that truly grew into a brotherhood. Some closer to each other than others, but all of us dear friends. As I looked around the church at his funeral and saw nearly 50 frat bros, and knew another 10 or 20 that couldn’t be there, and then with all the wives and children the brothers taking up 8 rows of seats in the church, it was a testament that Matt was the best of us all. Period. Not a single person in the group would argue.
For the record, as I looked at that motley crew I call my family, I remembered that I was always known as the “handsome one” and Matt would often tell me how much he admired my good looks. OK. He never really said that.
After college, Matt asked me to stand in he and Jen’s wedding. He and I and our wives traveled to San Francisco and Key West together, a week at Torch Lake, and I spent countless nights with them at the bar or at their epic New Year’s Eve parties (yes, those parties started immediately after college and grew into what you know today).
Matt was my brother. I’m the oldest of my siblings, so Matt was the big brother I never had and, it turns out, he was the wise older brother to many, many more than just me. He always had wise advice or would just talk through a problem with me. I never made a job change without calling him. When something funny would happen on a business trip, he’d be my first call. In times like these, when life has dealt me a crushing blow and is knocking me down, and when I need a friend to listen …I’d call Matt.
I can’t call Matt anymore, but I had this idea.
Jen called me a few days before his first memorial service and funeral (yes, Matt was so beloved by so many, he got two funerals) and asked if I would deliver his eulogy. She also said, with her Mom in the background, that she wanted it to be funny and that she wanted to laugh. I get that. I tried. I really tried. I wrote some great jokes about Babcock, Weldon, and Drew, but they’ll have to wait for another day, and probably weren’t all that funny anyway.
More than laughs, I wanted to say things about Matt that nobody at either funeral would ever forget. Because at 47 years old, in an instant, without a chance to say goodbye, he was taken from us all way too soon and he should’ve had many, many more years of handing out friendly, brotherly, and fatherly advice.
Be More Like Matt
In the days immediately following Matt’s passing, dozens of phone calls, hundreds of Facebook posts, and thousands of text messages all claimed we’d all start being, “more like Matt Bair.” It was wonderful and heartwarming but foolish, in a way, because you and I? We will never be Matt and Jen. Matt and Jen had a way of making everyone their friend. Everyone. Yes, you and I might be friendly, but not the Matt and Jen version of friendly.
Each visitation and each church for Matt’s two funerals were filled with my fraternity brothers, and hundreds of Matt’s co-workers and neighbors, and were all friends. Some of my fraternity brothers I consider among my best friends, well, I’ve never seen the inside of their homes, and they’ve never seen the inside of mine, we probably never will, and I think we like it that way. How many of you live on a nice street in a nice neighborhood and wave hello to your neighbors, maybe your kids play with their kids, and you’ve never stepped foot in each others house? This is what most people do and how they live.
Not with Matt and Jen. Everyone has been welcomed into Matt and Jen’s home.
I remember, years ago, they invited my family to St. Joseph, Michigan to stay with them for a weekend. I thought, “Yes. Matt, Jen, my wife and I, my three kids and their new baby – this will be great. It’s been too long and I look forward to catching up with them.” When we showed up, the weekend guest list was my family of five (we got the attic room), another fraternity brother and his family, one of Jen’s friend’s ex-boyfriend, two 80-year old women from down the block, a Whirlpool co-worker, a monk who spoke no English, a hockey-goalie in full gear on a unicycle, a potbelly pig …madness.
If you’ve been to a dinner party or a New Year’s Eve party at Matt and Jen’s, you know what I’m talking about.
Quick aside. I never really thought of 10:45 p.m. as dinner time, but at Matt and Jen’s that was normal and it worked. Oh, and that monk really new his wine.
Matt made you a friend. In his mind, having “some friends over” meant everyone. Everyone was worthy of friendship. Like his friend Jon (aka Word) recalled, remembering a Caribbean vacation that Jon, Cherie, Matt, and Jen all took together, and they found themselves talking with the woman delivering mail to their resort. Small talk. Jon and Cherie did as we all might, told the mail lady it was nice meeting her, and went back to their vacation. Matt and Jen? They kept talking to the mail lady. Flash forward a year later, and Jen said to Jon, “oh, we just got a nice note from the mail lady?” Jon had to be reminded about the entire exchange. Matt and Jen? They made her a friend.
Our Lorne Michaels
Matt’s other bit of magic was how accepting he was. White. Black. Short. Tall. Rich. Poor. Gay. Straight. Republican. Democrat. Spartan. OK. Not Wolverines. He, unlike many of us, could find the good in you and love you for it. Everyone. Except Wolverines. That’s clear, right?
The best way to say it was that Matt was our Lorne Michaels.
First, and I need to get this out of the way, because while many recalled how funny Matt was, I’d like to make a case that Matt wasn’t funny. Jen? She’s funny. Me? I’m hilarious (and handsome). I knew Matt when he was 19 and even back then his best material consisted of bad puns and cheezy Dad-Jokes.
Lorne Michaels is the legendary man behind Saturday Night Live. Without Lorne Michaels’ keen eye for spotting funny people and immense talent, the show wouldn’t exist. Lorne Michaels knows magic and talent when he sees it. With Saturday Night Live, the cast members come and go, but Lorne Michaels steers the ship. He’s revered by all the greats. Matt’s family, high-school friends, and his college buddies are the original cast. They’re the John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray of Matt’s life. Jen’s friends and their friends from Dearborn are probably the Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, and Billy Crystal cast. St. Joseph and Whirlpool are the Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, and Mike Meyers players. Peoria friends and co-workers are the Will Ferrel, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler casts.
The common thread for all the various Saturday Night Live casts was Lorne Michaels. For the immense collection of friends and characters gathered at Matt’s funerals? The common thread was Matt Bair. Lorne Michaels assembled all those characters because he saw something in each of them.
It should be said, again – we can’t be Matt. But Matt accepted everyone into his world because of some kind of magic he saw in each and everyone one of us. Yes. We can’t be Matt, but let’s be more like Matt and be more accepting of the people we meet and look for the best parts in each of them. Like Matt did.
Myself, and a few of my fraternity brothers …we admit. We’re tough pills to swallow. In fact, some of us take pride in our ability to piss people off and wear it as a badge of honor. Not Matt. Matt accepted me, and everyone, faults and all.
Yes. Be like Matt. You’ll be better, and the world will be better, if you act a little more like Matt. But also, look in the mirror and figure out what Matt loved about you, and then do that bigger, brighter, and better than you ever have.
Matt made friends with everyone. Matt accepted everyone.
Do You Have the Time?
Matt was great, too, because he would make time for you. He took his time (hence his notorious tardiness). Not once was I ever rushed off the phone or out the door – even if I called him at work in the middle of the day. To any of his former bosses …sorry. That wasn’t an important hour-long business call.
This world is so fast paced, yet Matt found a way to pause. Reflect. Ask you about you. But … he wasn’t wasting time. Matt lived every moment. Seriously? Didn’t Matt value a quiet evening at home – ever? Whether you were with him, talking with him, or scrolling through social media, it seemed like Matt and Jen were always out to dinner, or hosting dinner. On vacation with college buddies and their friends, and their friends’ friends. Oh. Look. Another vacation with Jon and Cherie. Oh. Matt’s in Texas. Hello? Matt? You’re in the Detroit area and want to quick meet for a drink. Yes. I’m in. Look. Dave’s at his house (again). Oh. Hey. There’s another picture of Matt with more people I’ve never seen before and he’s in a costume. Wow. Matt. Slow down. Grab your iPhone like the rest of us do, and scroll through Facebook. Read about Politics. Watch cable news. Then complain about politics. That’s how regular people spend their time.
No. That wasn’t Matt.
I believe this about some people and definitely about Matt. Subconsciously, maybe Matt knew he didn’t have 80-years with us. So he packed in every friend, family member, party, laugh, and loving moment into his short 47 years – just to make sure he got everything done. He really did have more of everything that matters in 47 years than most of us will have if we live to 100.
Matt valued his time. Matt took his time. So to honor Matt, the next time you find yourself on social media or obsessing about politics (or the Kardashians) – stop! Send a text to an old friend. Call someone. Plan a get together. Or something crazy. Have people over to your house and make them dinner. Because guess what? You may not have as much time as you think.
How many times did Matt ask me, “when are you coming to see us in Peoria?” And, “you should come New Years Eve.” Did I? Did I really, not once, have a free weekend? Sure, life is busy with my kids, and family, and soccer games, and school stuff, but is it really that busy?
Matt always seemed to have the time.
“People, let me tell you ’bout my best friend.He’s a warm hearted person who’ll love me till the end.” -Harry Nilsson (Theme song from “Courtship of Eddie’s Father”)
Matt didn’t share his political opinions, but he certainly would tell you what you needed to hear (and sometimes what you didn’t really need to hear). It all came from love. Even in college, when we’re not at an age of handing out advice, Matt had a thought or two in regards to just about everything and it’s why I do this impersonation of him looking pensive, taking his hat off his head, sighing in a pained and thoughtful way, and then saying, “something you might wanna think about.”
Matt’s friend Ben said it perfectly. Yes. Matt was able to give him advice and counsel at many times throughout their long friendship, but the time when Ben was parking his trailer at a campground, something Ben had done hundreds of times in many places, Ben didn’t really need Matt’s non-camping non-trailer-having advice. But it came from love.
Maybe Matt didn’t directly teach us this last bit of advice, but because he left us way too soon, I never had the chance to tell him how much I admired him, valued his friendship, and how great I think he was as a husband and father. I never made it to Peoria. I never dropped in at Torch Lake to crash his big party. It was OK, right? I knew a day would come, maybe 10 years down the road, when he’d be an empty nester like me, and then Matt, Jen, Don, and Kathy would book a cruise together or get back to San Francisco, and our adventures would resume. Then I’d tell him how great he is.
I never told Matt. And now I can’t.
A Token of My Appreciation
When Jen asked me to say some words about Matt she asked me to be funny, but I wanted to say something and write something that we would never forget because Matt is a person I won’t forget, and no one will forget. I want his daughters to know how special he was to so many.
It’s true. He was the Lorne Michaels of us all. Nobody was better at this thing called life than Matt.
Remember this about M.A.T.T.
M Make Friends. The More the Better
A Accept People for Who They Are and the Beauty and Greatness in Them (Find It)
T Time is a Gift – Don’t Waste It
T Tell People How Much They Mean to You
Please. Don’t forget Matt. Don’t let the days, months, and years pass and his memory fade. To help, find the coin you got at his funeral. If you don’t have one, or lost yours, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a coin. Keep it on your kitchen counter. Keep it in your pocket. Drill a hole in it and make it a keychain or ornament. On the front of the coin is a bear paw, to remind us to try and walk in Matt’s path as best we can. And on the back is M.A.T.T.
This is for everyone, but especially for Jen, Riley, Reese, and Paige (if you’re in a hurry, just Ri’, Ree’, and ‘G).
I thank Jen for asking me to reflect on the life of Matt Bair. My “fault” is that I never shut-up, I’m long-winded, and I Blog and write about everything, so maybe Jen asked because she knew, if she didn’t, I was going to do all of this, anyway.
Or maybe this is what M.A.T.T. loved about me.
He loved everyone. Especially his four angels.
We all loved him.
Please never forget him.