In Memoriam: Matt DeSpears

By Christine Lemmer-Webber on Tue 06 December 2011

Today I received a call from my friend Miles telling me that one of our mutual close friends, Matt DeSpears, passed away by taking his own life. It's hard to pick the appropriate words to describe how I feel upon hearing this news. "Shattered" and "devastated" are words that come to mind, and yet even though I feel like I am both of those things I don't feel that I have fully processed it yet. How do you describe losing one of those people who you just take for granted as a constant in your life?

I don't really feel like I am thinking completely clearly, but I feel compelled to write. And I feel like Matt deserves a proper tribute. And maybe the most appropriate time to give that tribute is right now, when I am most overwhelmed with emotion.

Matt, like many of the people I know and love, was a misfit. I don't mean this in a negative way: the people I love most in life are misfits (and I consider myself one of the biggest misfits of all). Being misfit means your character is likely to develop into something unusual, and the most unusual people are often the most beautifully interesting. Matt was even more misfit than most, and I loved him dearly for his unique character. There will never be another Matt. But being a misfit also means that it's harder to fit into the rest of the world, and that was especially true for Matt.

I met Matt at an alternative school called Kradwell, which I transferred to in my junior year of high school (as I was nearly failing out of school due to my social issues and trouble coping with my attention deficit disorder). I quickly came to love Kradwell. At Kradwell, my social problems vanished. I used to joke with people: nobody makes fun of you for being a freak at Kradwell because at Kradwell, everyone is a freak. Instead of resenting how weird I was, I came to embrace it. I met many friends there, all strange in their own wonderful ways. One of the friends I met was Matt.

Matt DeSpears photo from Kradwell yearbook
Photo of Matt DeSpears from the Kradwell yearbook

It took a while for Matt and I to become friends. Matt had a certain amount of awkwardness that was high even by Kradwell standards. But eventually I did come to know him, and one time I invited him over to a get-together at my house. I don't really remember the details, but I remember that day becoming a day when he became more integrated into the group of friends I was meeting at Kradwell. It was also around the time that my group of friends at Kradwell became integrated with my older group of friends from childhood. Without any realization, we formed a close knit group of friends that had continued to be strong even until this day, which my wife and I now call the Milwaukee Crew. I came to love this group of people, not just individually, but as a group: bonded through a mutuality of friendship and antagonism. It had that kind of dynamic to it that you can't force into being, that just develops, and you come to enjoy. Whenever I've come into Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Crew would assemble... or whoever of us were around. Morgan would sometimes remark about how resilient our group of friends were, still meeting together and making the same old jokes, expecting the same quirks... I thought it would last forever...

As I said, Matt was more awkward than most, but underneath that shell of awkwardness was a true warmness. Matt had a very fuzzy and puppy-dog like personality to him when you knew how to reach it. The truth of the matter was, Matt just wanted to be loved. I guess that's true for everyone, but even more so than for most people, that's how I think of Matt.

Matt also loved to antagonize people. We all did, but there was this certain flavor of antagonism in Matt that's really hard to describe. I remember Jay driving Matt and saying "Which way should we turn, Matt?" and Matt said, "Pope." "No seriously, which way do we turn, Matt?" "Pope." "No seriously, we're about to pass the light, which way do we turn?" "Pope." Maniacal laughter ensues, as Jay drives through the intersection yelling with frustration. (Edit: Apparently it was a highway off-ramp, the next intersection wasn't for miles, and I wasn't even in the car. But the memory has been strong enough in our group that I've remembered it as if I was.)

It might be hard to understand how that could be lovable, or even entertaining, but maybe you just weren't there. For years, we've groaned about this story, but behind the groan was a fondness for the memory, for the dynamic that unrolled between our friends.

There are other things, too, that I remember fondly, that seem like they will never be able to happen in the same way again. All night LAN parties playing CounterStrike, with Jay and Matt getting angry at each other over some tidbit. Playing a prank on Matt so we made it so that every action on his computer elicited the noise "whoop-da-doop-da-doop!" and watching him getting angry as he couldn't turn the noise off. Later (after it was disabled), he became obsessed and in love with that noise, as we all did. It's just one of those inside jokes that all of us became obsessed with that nobody else could understand the meaning behind.

I also remember that Matt became obsessed, as a few of us were, with an MMORPG that existed before that term existed called Graal, which was basically Legend of Zelda in 2d online. Believe it or not, this proprietary game partly led me to become obsessed with the idea of free software as it was completely scriptable, and for a time, anyone could run their own server which meant that anyone could build their own universe. Then they took the ability to run your own server away and I became angry and... hm, that's a topic for another blogpost. The real point is, after a good number of us stopped playing, Matt continued playing the game, caught up in that online social world. We used to antagonize him about it, and then he asserted that he stopped playing the game altogether. Later, Miles and Jay would sneak across the side of his house and take a photo of him playing the game. He was furious. But eventually he came to laugh about it, as we all did. Filed into another memory of fondness in the Milwaukee crew. And there was something about that game that seemed to reflect something interesting about Matt, maybe about all of us. The promise that you could build your own universe, and the ability to escape into another one that wasn't as painful as your own. Matt became an administrator on the server. One day Matt had shown me that he had built an entire trading card minigame inside the game itself that had a bit of a following, even a fansite. He had never programmed anything else in his life. He just did it. I don't remember Matt ever doing anything else like that before.

Miles or me vs Jay in the robot suit
This is either Miles or me chasing Jay in a cardboard robot suit. I think it's Miles. Regardless, it captures the spirit of the times and the crew.

I could go on into infinity listing off fond memories, and I'm a bit tempted to, but I think maybe I shouldn't. But here are a few of the ones I remember the most fondly:

  • Creating cardboard robot suits and beating each other with plastic bats to the confusion of our neighbors.
  • Hanging out at The Node, a coffee shop for nerds we all loved (until sadly they shut it down) and playing Risk. One day after a particularly serious defeat, I "whoop-de-doop-de-doop"'ed Matt while doing a dance. Nobody else in the coffee shop knew what I was doing or why I was making a fool of myself. But we all understood.
  • Driving around and talking about our relationships, or sometimes lack thereof. Cheering each other up as friends, dropping by to say hello.
  • Jay and Miles stopping by to order the most complex sandwich they could order at the sandwich shop Matt was working at.
  • Matt's wonderfully strange vocal intonation somehow becoming a manner of speaking that everyone in the crew adopted.
  • Various shenanigans at Kradwell.
  • Matt's bizarre obsession with the Pope, Battle Pope, and BatPope.
  • After I had moved away out to Barat College, Matt, Miles and Jay driving all the way down to my dorm completely unannounced, picking me up and making me come along with them on some adventure. At the time, I acted like it was an inconvenience even though I truly appreciated it. And of course I really appreciate the memory now.
  • Hanging out on our private web forum which was entirely full of inside jokes and shenanigans. "Nice" and "Shut up Wesley" being inside jokes that were tossed everywhere on there.
  • As members of the group began to disperse, doing various get-togethers in Milwaukee or Appleton nonetheless. Beating each other senseless with styrofoam pool noodles even though that doesn't make any sense because we're supposed to be adults here.
  • My bachelor party, which was also a LAN party. We were hoping it wouldn't be one of the last time we ever got to do one of these types of things again, but knew that it probably was.
  • Matt being one of the ushers at my wedding, with Jay as my man of honor, Miles as one of the groomsmen (the others were siblings). Several other members of the Milwaukee crew (Claire, Dani, Fatch (Jon), Corinna, Jeni... and I am probably missing a couple others) weren't in the wedding party but were in the audience.

Matt, Miles, myself, and Jay at my wedding
Matt, Miles, myself, and Jay (in order) at my wedding

I think, more than anything, I am sad that in all of our get togethers there just won't be a Matt anymore to recollect with. There will just be an empty seat and a memory of Matt. It seemed like it would last forever, be a constant in my life, and yet now it will never be the same.

A couple weeks ago I was going stir crazy from living in DeKalb. Those of you who know me personally know that DeKalb is not exactly my favorite place to be, but we're here because of Morgan's grad school program which I am supportive of (and we can do because I have the good fortune of working remotely as a programmer). I decided to go to Milwaukee to visit friends and family for Thanksgiving and even take a few days off to work on some of my own projects. Right before I left the car broke down... but we decided that it was important enough to blow the money on a rental car so I could get out of town.

While I was there, I tried to assemble the crew, but it didn't happen as it usually did. I had the chance to meet most people individually, at least. Matt and I had scheduled to go out and meet one night, but for reasons I won't go into I did something I never did: I got so frustrated over some detail that I canceled. Thankfully, we agreed to go out and get breakfast at George Webbs the next morning.

We talked about relationships, life, work, the usual. It was a good catch up. Matt wasn't upset that I had refused to meet with him the previous night, or he didn't show any animosity. After we got breakfast we went to American Science and Surplus and walked around and looked at various things. I considered buying several things but didn't. Matt bought a keychain container for his medication. It was a nice and quiet walk through someplace that we both cherished. I was a glad we had that opportunity to get together for it. Afterwards Matt suggested I meet his father, as I had never met his parents strangely in the more than ten years I'd known him. We walked in, his father was preoccupied but said hello, Matt and I shrugged, he grabbed an iced tea from the fridge, and I drove him home. Prairie Home Companion played on the radio, which I love, and Matt had never heard. It unusually wasn't a good episode, not even the part with Guy Noir, Private Eye, and I felt bad that I didn't give Matt the opportunity to appreciate this show I really enjoyed. But he didn't mind. I dropped him off, we cheerily waved goodbye, and I drove home thinking I was glad we had that opportunity to hang out before I left.

Today I received a call from my friend Miles. He asked me to make sure I was sitting, which I was, and then told me that he had just heard from Matt's nephew. Matt had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend, swallowed a bottle of pills, and passed away.

Matt was a strange and wonderful person. Like many of us strange people, he suffered from depression and various other issues. I also in many times in my life, have suffered from depression, and have come close to attempting suicide on several occasions. I am glad I have not done so, as I probably would have become the same thing to others that Matt will be now: a dearly loved friend who is no longer there, an empty chair at a coffee table in a gathering of friends and family. I will miss Matt dearly. He was a great friend.

I want to say one more thing in this post before I close it out. Matt had a son whom he rarely got to meet in this life. If that person ever reads this, I want you to know several things about your father. First: he regretted not being able to be a better father and blamed a lot of this on himself. Family issues can become complex, as they were here, and at one point Matt thought he should finish school before he was more supportive, and then that never seemed to finish, he wished he could move down and be with you, and that never seemed to pan out. But he wanted to be there for you, he just didn't know how to get to that point. Second: your father loved you. He would show me pictures of you, he would talk about you, and he wanted nothing more than to figure out how to be there for you, and the fact that he wasn't was a great source of sadness and guilt for him. But when he spoke of you there were moments of inner pride and happiness that I never saw otherwise. And I wish that things could have worked out so you could have gotten to know your father and loved him as I did. He was a wonderful man, in his own curious way. Third: he would have wanted you to be happy, to do good things, to enjoy life. There's nothing he would have wanted more than that.

And to all others: if you know someone who is awkward or strange, be nice to them, embrace them; they need it. And if you yourself are strange or weird, don't be afraid of this, learn to love it.

Matt, I will miss your strangeness, your wonderfulness, your kindness, your friendship. Around the coffee table of my heart, there will always be a seat for you.

Edit: I tried to incorporate some text earlier into this post to make it clear that I don't think Matt's girlfriend was to blame. I honestly don't think she was. I haven't always gotten along with Matt's girlfriend in the past, but when I met with Matt for breakfast he expressed to me, "I know you guys don't like hanging out with her, but I love her, and she makes happy. I'm happier now than I have been for a long time." And I agreed... he did seem happier than he had been in a long time. This is partly added to the surprise of this news. I spoke with Matt's girlfriend and heard her side of the story. I didn't think she was to blame before, and I especially don't now. Couples' fights happen... and Matt was close to the edge for a long time. This event is going to be hard on a lot of people, but probably especially it'll be hard on Jackie. Please don't put any more grief on her shoulders than she is already going to have to bear.