Southern Utah News Articles
My best friend Matt Walters
Matt Walters was my best friend all through high school. I am so honored and proud to say it. And I am a much better person for the experience. Matt and I grew up in rural Utah in separate towns three miles apart. Our paths didn’t cross until we attended the same junior high, and even then we still traveled in different circles. But Fate or the angels or a lucky cosmic accident threw us together in high school.
Matt and I became friends during our third period algebra class. The people who would form our band of friends for the next three years were also in that class. Traci Lynn, Jennie Lin, Holly, Denise, Melissa, Matt and myself. It was there that I first encountered Matt’s sharp wit, his dry sarcasm, his mastery of smart-assery and his wonderful, deep laugh.
We had lunch after our algebra class and the lunch room was right across the hall. Our algebra teacher would usually let us out five minutes early so we could beat the lunch line so it was only natural that this little group that was fast becoming friends should walk across the hall and have lunch together. But I didn’t join them at first. My friends were the jocks, so I stood in the hall outside the lunch room and waited for them.
And then my boring jock friends and I sat together at a table and – I don’t remember exactly – but we probably talked about that day’s upcoming football practice or our various bruises from yesterday’s practice, or our latest weight-lifting routines, or how we had to really nut-up this year if we were going to beat Delta or Manti. Blah, blah, blah. I know it was one of those four topics because that’s all they ever talked about.
But just a few tables away sat Matt and my new friends from algebra class. Matt was emceeing lunch, of course, with the same enthusiasm of an Oscar host and he was, of course, telling those at his table a story. About halfway through his story I noticed that not only was those at his table listening, all the tables around his were listening in as well. Whatever anecdote he was telling them was apparently hilarious because everyone within a twenty foot radius of him was rocking back and forth in their chairs in fits of laughter. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining with Matt, or joining him for drinks while he’s holding court, you’ll relate to such a moment. And then Matt delivered the punchline of his story and he too laughed. That laugh! That pure, Matt laugh! Rising from the depths of his old, wise, philosopher’s soul. His perfect Hollywood teeth and Klieg-light personality were beaming.
I wasn’t the greatest athlete but I still counted myself among the jocks, so I was surprised to find that I felt jealous of those sitting at Matt’s table. After all, wasn’t I sitting at the cool kids table?
The most alpha male at our table of alpha-males (looking back l see now we were merely an insecure bunch of alpha-male wannabes) seemed peeved from having his droning laundry list interrupted by a table of nerds. When the laughter from Matt’s story finally subsided the alpha-male jock proceeded droning on again giving us his clichéd thoughts on the virtues of victory.
Right then. That moment. That changed me. And my life’s trajectory. I didn’t know it then (I was just a high school sophomore) but such a moment has a name. I now know that such a moment is called a Threshold Moment. And when you cross the threshold your life changes. Forever. Usually for the better. For me, it was definitely for the better.
As our sophomore alpha-male droned on about the importance of winning I realized I didn’t want to be with the drones. I wanted to sit at Matt’s table. A table of storymakers and storytellers. I wanted to belong to the group that had imaginations, IQs, senses of humor, ideas of their own – which they were always free to express – and a vision of, and plan for the future. A bright future. A group whose ambitions wouldn’t be realized next week in an endzone (how apropos!) but 20 or 30 years from now, on a stage, in a boardroom, in a laboratory, in a bookstore, in a newsroom.
I have thought many, many times – haunted is perhaps the better word – where I’d be today if I had remained at the narrow-minded jock’s table. How many of us have been drawn in to one of Matt’s stories and found ourselves the better for it on the other end?
That was the last time I had lunch with the jocks. The next day when our algebra teacher let us out early for lunch I joined Matt and the rest of the group from algebra class, who were quickly gelling into life-long friends. When my football friends arrived at the lunch room and found me sitting with Matt and the others they said, “Why you sitting with the nerds?”
“I guess I’m a nerd,” I said.
And I wasn’t the only one to come over to Matt’s table. By the end of the next week Matt’s table – which I was then fortunate to call our table – burgeoned with others who wanted to join the fun table, until ten of us were squeezed together at a table for six. As anyone who has been at Matt’s table knows, there is always room for more.
And for the next three years I had lunch with Matt. Pretty soon we were hanging out after school and we discovered that we both liked the same kind of music, fashion, movies and books.
Matt and I were good for each other. Many of our coming of age moments, many of our figuring-it-out moments we did together. I could be myself around Matt. I could be normal around Matt. I drank my first beer with Matt. I drank my first glass of whiskey with Matt. I smoked my first cigarette with Matt. I went to my first rock concert with Matt.
The teenaged years are often turbulent enough, even more so if you’re hiding a big secret, and Matt and I were both hiding big secrets. Matt confided his secrets and concerns in me, and I confided my secrets and worries with him.
Matt didn’t come out of the closet until after college but anyone with gay-dar could tell, or at least suspected, that he was gay. He did the right thing in not coming out during high school. If he would have come out and confirmed that he was gay to our backwards little redneck hick town I’m sure he would have met with some rough, and most likely violent consequences.
I wasn’t wise enough to offer him a remedy. I think I shrugged and said, “Whatever you decide to do I’ll still be your friend.”
While Matt was wrestling with his demons, I was wrestling with my own. I was a Mormon, and Mormons are taught they belong to the only true religion out of all the world’s great and ancient religions. I really had a hard time believing that.
Around that same time one of our friends who had reached missionary age and was therefore expected to go on a mission, instead announced –very bravely in my opinion – that he would not be going on a mission and, what’s more, he was an atheist. He was instantly shunned. His family, still good Mormons, weren’t exactly shunned but shameful, hurtful things were said behind their backs.
So, though I had my doubts about Mormonism, I kept quiet. I didn’t need that kind of drama, and even more, I didn’t want to bring shame upon my family. My family was so hard-core orthodox Mormons that telling them I didn’t believe would have been pretty devastating to them.
I aired my concerns to the only person I could: Matt. My Mormon ward came equipped with a bishop (who was a very caring man) but it was Matt who heard my truest confessions. Matt was a great listener. Matt nodded. He advised that I table it for now, and added, “Whatever you decide to do, I’ll still be your friend.”
Matt eventually came out, and I eventually quit the Mormon Church, but we always stayed friends. Anytime I had good news he was one of the first people I called to tell.
I’ve actually never thought of this until now, but I shudder to imagine my current life without having Matt’s ear and humor. His shoulder and guidance. My life today would have arrived in a very different place today – a worse place – without Matt.
After high school our life goals took us in separate directions from time to time but our lives have always roughly paralleled each other; not straight like train tracks, but more like paralleling sine waves: a little closer this year, next year a little farther. But they never moved too far apart. I’m very thankful for that.
I was not surprised to learn that Matt, generous Matt, a life-long giver, will be donating his viable organs.
To the person who receives Matt’s lungs know that these lungs have breathed life in deep, and shouted with joy at the top of them many, many times. Matt has always been a giver. He gave to his very last breath.
To the lucky person who gets Matt’s eyes: they’ve seen a lot. Everything from beautiful landscapes, events and moments, to the surreal, bizarre and otherworldly. He took it all in stride and added it proudly to his long life-list.
His eyes always looked for the beauty in the world, and he was one of those rare people who knew to pause and appreciate it when he found it. Matt had the eyes of a visionary. He saw the beauty of the moment, and also the bright possibility of the future. Most importantly, his eyes always looked for the best in people. He saw it in me, and encouraged me to bring it forth.
His dreamer’s brain he will take with him – sadly, sadly. Full of visions, plans, innovations and empires that the world may never behold.
I hope it stills bears a few memories of me, and us, and our joyous youthful days when, together, we laughed, planned, muddled through, and figured it out. In the 80s we just called that “hanging out.” Most of the time with MTV playing in the background.
If you are so fortunate to receive Matt’s heart bear in mind that you’re receiving one helluva kind, generous, gentle, giving heart. If a tree was planted over his heart it would become the Tree of Life.
Because of his many accomplishments and charisma Matt often found himself in the spotlight. But Matt didn’t need a spotlight. With his Hollywood smile, and all-that charisma he shined bright enough on his own. He wasn’t just confident, he exuded confidence.
Because of his unconditional confidence Matt was able to move beyond the Me and focused on the You. From the patio in front of Canyon Lodge, gathered around the firepit, he asked his guests, “What’s your story? What brings you to Kanab? What do you like, do, care about? What’s your passion?”
Matt was a master of hosting. Because of his high level of confidence he was able to shift the high-beam of his charisma onto his guests, friends and whoever else was fortunate enough to break bread and drink wine at his table. Absolutely no one has done it better.
If you’re the one who receives his heart I hope you’ll continue Matt’s legacy of kindness, generosity, giving, and loving.
His soul too he’ll take with him. Full of wit, both sardonic and sharp. And sarcasm, drier than those elegant martinis he made so well. And the poet’s insight. I may be mistake on this – but not likely – but I believe the source of Matt’s patented laugh – which we’ll miss so much – rose from the depths of that ancient, wise soul.
With the exception of my wife I''ve never been closer to anyone. God, he was so real, so authentic, so genuine, so pure. So Matt. And that’s what l will miss most of all: his Mattiness. Because no one else has it.
It is so strange, so surreal, so difficult, so sad to speak of Matt Walters in the past tense, because two of his many qualities were being present in the present, and dreaming big plans of the future.
His memories live with us now. And there are a lot of them. “Hey, remember that time Matt ___________.”
Matt has so many friends, so many people whose lives he has touched, and each one of them has a story –or five or ten – to fill in that blank. Thousands of stories. Some, I am very proud to say are my own. But as many stories fill that blank it’s still not enough. Too much of that blank will be left blank.
With Matt’s passing, my life – as will may of yours – have a big blank in them too. That spot where Matt used to be. I will miss calling him to tell him of my latest adventure or accomplishment, and I will miss him calling me to tell me his and Travis’ latest adventure, or accomplishment. And the many tiny, happy moments in between. Most of all I’ll miss the adventures we would have, should have taken together. I’ll miss the wine, the meals, the laughs, the stories, the travels we’ll no longer share.
I miss you Matt. And I will continue to miss you. Few people have had a more positive, kinder, generous influence on my life than you have. Thank you for that. Thank you for everything. I will love you forever.