Last night’s news felt like a suckerpunch.  I’ve already read a lot of Farewells and Testimonials.  Please permit me to add one more.

            The first time I met Rick Hautala was back in 2001.  It was around the time that the HWA had extended its dominion into regional branches, and the New England chapter was beginning to take shape.  It was before the whole “social network” explosion, so our little group was basically an email list (helmed back then by co-chairs Daniel Keohane and Mike Arruda).  The two had established our first few New England meetings, down in some seedy Irish pub in a hotel in Concord, New Hampshire.  I was the newby back then, and it all seemed so important, so groundbreaking to belong to such a group.  And when I found out that Rick Hautala was going to be attending, that sense of importance grew exponentially.

            I grabbed an armful of his novels and headed on down, and made the neophyte mistake of acting like a gushing fanboy, asking for his autograph(s) in the middle of dinner and drinks.  He handled it brilliantly, gently putting me at ease before my brain could hemorrhage in front of our little group, and I began to realize that Maine’s “second favorite” author was very approachable and genuinely a nice guy.

            This was in November.  By early spring of the following year, Keohane (Mr. Churchkey) talked me into signing up for the beloved conference known as NeCon.  I was still the neophyte, so when I drove down to Bristol alone I had a very rough time meeting people and feeling like I belonged.  The moment Rick saw me he came right up and shook my hand.  He was all wispy hair and smiles, and donned in his “Hauty” garb of tee shirt, shorts, and Birkenstock sandals.  He literally looked like a road manager for the Grateful Dead.  By the following year at NeCon, Rick was hugging me hello (which caught me very off guard). 

            Rick’s a fellow Mainer, so it was always cool to shoot the breeze about Maine stuff, about writing, about the business (and all those shady characters in the publishing industry to beware of), about beer and cigars, and whatever else was going on.  Rick played softball with us at NeCon.  He played miniature golf.  He sat on panels and freely shared his wisdom and experience.  He participated in roasts, and made us laugh our asses off.  And, recently, he’d been elevated to the status of NeCon Legend and was awarded the HWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

            And he was always cool about autographing his books for me.  Always an intimate little note, with his scribbly name and that telltale trademark skull he’d inscribe.  My library has more than a few.  I’d wager yours does, too.

            Before my novel came out last year, I shot Rick a note to ask if he’d read it and write a blurb for me.  He gave me his address to send the book, but warned me, “No promises…I’m pretty swamped.”  It was cool.  I understood the man to be a very dedicated writer, with works under his own name, his pseudonym A.J. Matthews, and the myriad screenplays he always boasted to be working on.  A part of me wondered if his refusal was a polite way to not let me put him on the spot for a blurb if he didn’t like the book, and I was cool with that as well.  I wouldn’t want to endorse someone else’s work if I thought it sucked.  In the end, my book went to press and I never got the blurb (although Rick’s wonderful wife Holly DID read the book and supply a blurb for the cover.  She’s a doll, and I’m so devastated for her loss). 

            Jump cut to last November at AnthoCon.  Rick was a Guest of Honor for that weekend, and when it came time for dinner in the packed dining hall, the only two chairs available were at Rick and Holly’s table.  L.L. Soares and I politely asked if the chairs were reserved and Rick warmly invited us to sit down and join him.  Once again, the meal was filled with warm conversation, talk that included both mine and Lauran’s debut novels, and cold beers.  Rick smiled as he informed me that he did get around to reading my book and that he liked it very much.  It was such an enormous, humbling moment of flattery that I thought I was going to explode with pride.  Rick would later on post links for my book on his Facebook page, telling the world that “This book is a good ‘un!” 

            I spent a lot of time following Rick’s political memes and commentaries on Facebook, frequently taking time to post dopey replies if I thought I could make him laugh.  He took it all in stride, particularly after Obama was officially reelected and sworn into office for a second term.  I’m glad as hell he got to see it.  Rick very much wanted the world to be a better place and was never shy about pointing out those liars and scoundrels that tend to muck it up for their own personal gain.  My own political ideologies have shifted over the last few years, and he played a great part in that. 

            The very last personal message I got from him was back in February.  Rick took the time to shoot me a note that he’d cast his vote for my novel on the Bram Stoker Award® preliminary ballot.  The note began with “For what it’s worth,” which to me suggested that he perhaps regretted not getting that blurb I’d asked for back to me.  Once again, I felt enormously flattered, and thanked him.  I told him I was glad that anybody had even read and liked it, and that before the book debuted, I was having anxiety attacks over it.  Rick responded that it never goes away, but neither does the exhilaration of seeing your work get published, so I should get used to it. 

            Rick Hautala was a great writer.  He was an even better human being.  And he is every bit the legend he will be remembered as.  God bless ya, Hauty!  You will be missed.