It is with a very heavy heart that I write and publish this essay. On Tuesday I learned that a friend of mine, Rick Haegg, passed away in his home on Sunday. According to his wife, Abigail, on Facebook, he passed peacefully, surrounded by friends and music.
Music was incredibly important to Rick, and his skill as a guitarist was one of his most impressive and identifiable characteristics (in addition to others like kindness, compassion, and supportiveness). He was my guitar teacher throughout all of my high school years and the beginning of my college experience. He’s the reason I made studying and understanding music such a massive part of my life for so many years. It wasn’t just his technical skill as a musician that I learned from, but it was his enthusiasm for learning. It seemed there was nothing more thrilling to him than picking up a song by ear as quickly and accurately as possible, or than bending a string to its limits to screech into the exact right note, or than discovering the perfect tone. He was seemingly never satisfied, and his indefatigable pursuit of knowledge made him happy. He was always happy, any time I saw him.
Every couple weeks or month I’d walk into his home, which felt very much like a cottage–his home was quaint, humbly decorated with comfortable furniture and darling mementos–and I’d find he’d acquired a new guitar. He was always trading and buying new guitars. It was a small room in which he gave guitar lessons. It seemed it could barely contain the towers of CDs, the shelves, books, music stand, and amplifiers, let alone two dudes and their guitars. It was a little shrine to things that Rick loved, and they were deliberately crammed into this space so that his students could experience those things too. Every week was different, and I always walked away with a fresh enthusiasm to master the song, technique, skill, etc., that I’d learned. I wanted to someday be as good as Rick. But I’ll never be as good as Rick. In so many ways he was so good.
I can remember trying to take classical guitar lessons from him (in addition to being an accomplished bluesman and musician in general, he had a degree in classical guitar performance), and I made it a few weeks, maybe a month, before I quit and went back to rock. It was too difficult for me. But not for Rick. He was the master. But I don’t know if he ever knew he was the master. If he did, he didn’t show it. He was one of the most humble creatives I’ve ever met. He helped me realize the importance of humility. He also helped me become a life-long learner, like he was. He’s the reason I was able to give guitar lessons for nearly nine years and make that my main source of income, so that I didn’t have to get a “real” job until I started teaching English after college. And he was so proud of me for becoming a guitar teacher–there was no sense of competition or anything, he was thrilled that this great life of helping people learn music was something we now could share.
I never knew Rick’s wife, but I kept up with Rick’s medical updates through her Facebook page. According to her posts, Rick was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer and in September his doctors found he had an inoperable, incurable tumor. At that time he was given 18-24 months to live, and the doctor told Rick that this cancer “is what is going to end your life.” I can’t imagine receiving that news. But Rick has always been positive and strong, and so is Abigail because after that news she wrote, “We are going to focus on getting Rick as healthy as possible and living life to the fullest.” And that’s what’s important, right? It’s so simple, and looking back I can’t think of a time when Rick wasn’t living life to the fullest.
The expectation of two years fugaciously disappeared, and Abigail posted more news on November 21. She wrote that the doctors think Rick only has a few days to a week left. He passed away two days later.
Just knowing he isn’t around–that I won’t be able to stumble into a show of his in downtown Springfield, Missouri, or something–makes me miss him a lot. But more than anything, the passing of my friend Rick Haegg makes me thankful that I was able to know him at all. This week a lot of memories came back to me, pouring into and then filling my mind, distracting me at work or around my friends, and making me blissful and sad at the same time. I can remember how he always offered me a glass of water, or tea, and these hard little pieces of black licorice. He’s the reason I think black licorice is delicious. I can remember taking a lesson from him a few days after he opened for B.B. King. He remained so humble about it, even though it was a huge accomplishment, and his happiness was radiant and infectious. I can remember at the end of every lesson he’d say “Rock on, dude.” It would have sounded corny if it weren’t coming from a man so sincere. When Rick said, “Rock on, dude,” it was more than just a goodbye. It was a word of encouragement and it was an expression of shared interests and it was a mantra and it was challenging and it was inspiring and it was against The Man and it was permission to be free. That sentence contained universes when it came from Rick Haegg. He also always told me, “Don’t trust Whitey.” I tried to take both phrases to heart.
The world lost a pure heart and a true talent last week, but his influence remains present. He has touched the lives of many many people. In one of her posts, Abigail wrote, “Dare to be happy and really live.” Rick did that. And he’s a big reason why I try to do that too. We’ll miss you, Rick. Rock on, dude.