I was sitting in my office at work on Tuesday, January 18th when I opened the e-mail and read the words, Ric passed away suddenly last night. I read that sentence over and over again. I thought it was a joke. Some stupid ass joke that Ric, and only Ric, could find slightly amusing. When reality finally set in, I still couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking, I just saw him and all was well….how could this have happened?!
Two weeks later, I’m still left wondering. I came to Sheffield’s tonight to get inspired and to get some writing done, something that I do often. When writing about taverns, culture, history, and their connections, it seems only natural to write in a bar setting – no brainer. And if you read the previous post here, you know why I choose Sheffield’s. It’s my second home, or as Ric would say, my Third Place. When I write about taverns, I usually focus on the physical space because its the walls that provide the environment to create their history. But when you are offered the opportunity to feature stories about individuals, you can make meaningful personal connections that anyone and everyone can relate to. And that is golden. It’s the people that make up the tales, the taverns, and the towns, so it’s no stretch then, to feature a post about one person. Especially when that person has made a personal and professional impact on so many people in so many ways.
I met Ric Hess about 4 years ago when I walked into his bar to learn about its history. He was not nice. He was too busy for me. But I was stubborn and after a bit of finessing, we ended up talking for about an hour. He got pretty geeked out when I told him about my tavern history projects and that I worked for the Chicago History Museum and I think that’s what ultimately drew him in. He told me all he knew about the place, how he got involved, and his plans for the future (something that would be a recurring topic for us). In the end, I was content that I made a connection at Sheffield’s and acquired some information for my database. But what he didn’t know is that I was pretty geeked out by his bar. It didn’t have the obnoxious fraternity ambiance that most Wrigleyville bars have and it didn’t have the pretentiousness that most craft beer bars have. I instantly felt at home and I knew I would be back.
Over the course of the next year, Ric and I talked mostly business. We collaborated on a few things and focused our conversations on how our work could benefit one another other. These early exchanges between us were pivotal to what would be a great friendship. They created an important foundation of trust and respect. It was also at this time that I learned amazing things about Ric. For example, did you know that the man was pretty much responsible for the concept of the craft beer bar in Chicago? Yeah, neither did I. It was the late 80s/early 90s and he was a big fan of craft beer and a big fan of the little guy. When breweries like Goose Island and Bell’s were still, in fact, little guys, it was Ric that took a chance and put their products in his bar. And when other bars wanted to follow suit, he encouraged them. “The beer community is small – we’re all in this together, let’s support each other” is what he said to me about it. He taught me about the few pioneer craft beer taverns in town and what their contributions were to the industry and to the city. I also learned that Ric was not only a writer, but a great writer. The kid would wake up at 4AM, write all morning because “that’s when no one can bother me” and would make his way down to the bar in the mid-morning to get the show on the road. He had a great dedication to his craft of writing and he had a great dedication to craft beer. Eventually he would throw making good BBQ into the mix. But the common denominator to all of this was community. Ric made his bar a haven for learning and sharing ideas about beer, writing, and BBQ and everyone was welcome.
I would often scribble words on a pad of paper or type away at my computer. It was fun, but I never dared call myself a writer. I wasn’t trained, I had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t think I deserved it because I hadn’t earned it. He would often be the first to read a few of my ramblings and, at the bar one day, he turned to me and said, “well I hate to break it to you kid, but you’re a writer”. It was at that moment that I felt validated in what I thought was just a hobby. It was Ric’s influence that helped inspire me to start this blog. “Do something with all that cool stuff you have”. With his support and annoying, yet kind nudges behind me, not only did I start this thing, but I went on to write an iPhone app for it, something I never imagined doing. He was always a fan even insisting to have the Chicago Taverns & Tales launch party at Sheffield’s. It was a hit.
When I asked Ric to guest blog for me in early December, he not only said yes, but he repeated one word over and over again: honored. “I would be so honored to write the January blog and I am so honored and humbled you asked and have confidence in me”. Over and over again. I imagine only handful of people read this thing (most of which I’m sure are related to me) and this goober was honored. But that’s the kind of guy he was. No matter how little or big your dreams were, he encouraged you to follow them and supported you all along the way.
In the past two weeks I’ve caught myself beginning many of my sentences with, “I remember when Ric…” I remember when Ric introduced me to what would become my most favorite beer in the world, Surly Furious. Surly Fridays became a weekly affair. At times I wasn’t sure if we were referring to the beer or to Ric himself. I remember when Ric looked at me once and said, “are you doing something new with your hair, because you look stunning today, I mean you are beautiful”. A compliment from Ric Hess, holy shizzle. I remember when Ric and I were drinking beer and exchanged words like floral, full-bodied, and finish. He turned to me and said, “this is so cool, we’re talking about beer the way people talk about wine, I mean, who does this, how cool is this, how cool are we?” I looked at him like he had three heads and I just said, “whatever, nerd, just give me more” to which he instantly replied, “and that is why I love you”. And that set the trajectory for our fast evolving friendship. I remember when Ric was sad because I was going to be out of town and couldn’t work the Sheffield’s beer tent during the street fair. He was never sad and this time he was sad because I was leaving. I remember when Ric and I would sit in the “office” at the bar and make plans. Little, big, no matter, we had plans. Plans for future events between the bar and the museum, plans for beer, plans for dinner, plans for writing, plans for trips, plans for life. I remember when Ric let me sit in the “office” even if it was going to piss off other patrons because they had been told the area was not for public use. I remember when Ric was actually tending bar one afternoon. Wow, did he suck at it. And I let him know. He quickly flipped me the bird. I remember when Ric was nearly brought to tears when I brought him a series of articles from the 1930s. I remember when Ric bought me my first beer. I remember when Ric made me get up at 4:30AM, find a costume, carve a pumpkin and howl on TV. I remember when Ric told me he was proud of me and knew that I would go on to do great things. I remember when Ric told me how much I had enriched his life and so happy to call me a friend. And I remember when Ric died. It stings to write those words, but I remember, and I’m slowly getting it.
Ric is physically gone, but Ric is so ever-present in the lives of many. You can’t help but feel his presence when you walk into Sheffield’s (I still expect to see that knucklehead somewhere in the bar). Even after death, Ric continues to make introductions and connections. I’ve met so many nice people throughout these past couple of weeks. One individual even approached me after a work event just to say hi because he heard me speak at Ric’s memorial service. I’ve already exchanged e-mails with a handful of folks that I met at that memorial. I’ve become more interested in the personal lives of the everyday people I know from the bar. Why didn’t I chat with them more before? And because of Ric’s death, I have learned that life really is short and my embrace around it is fiercer than ever.
Ric was many things to many people. His role in my life would change depending on the day. Some days he could be like a brother, other days he was my beer guru. Some days he was a perverted uncle, other days he was a friend. Some days he was a patriarch, other days he was a mentor. As Ric would say, it is all about the journey. Boy, did this kid have a journey and I am honored to have been a part of it. I’ll miss you my friend. Thank you for creating such a comfortable space for me in your bar and in your life. Thank you for introducing me to so many amazing people. Thank you for everything you have shared and taught me. Thank you for believing in me and allowing me to dream with you. And wherever you are, save a bar stool for me, it’s almost time for Surly Fridays.