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Matt Haley dedicated the last three years of his life to improving the lives of children in Nepal, but he may have touched even more lives in his home state.
Haley, 53, a popular Cape Region chef and restaurant owner, died at 11:25 p.m. EST, Aug. 19, from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident in the mountains of India.
"The entire team at the Matt Haley Companies is incredibly saddened by this huge loss,” said Scott Kammerer, president and COO of The Matt Haley Companies.
Haley had been on a six-week humanitarian expedition through northern India and Nepal where he had traveled extensively since 2011. Haley won the 2014 James Beard Humanitarian Award for his work in the region helping fund educational initiatives. Haley’s work in Nepal included building schools, educating orphans and establishing a coffee farm to encourage sustainability.
Haley was on a ride through mountainous northern India Aug. 18 when his motorcycle was struck by a truck. According to the company statement, Haley was traveling with international filmmaker and motorcycle expert Guarav Jani, as he had on previous trips. While little is known about the details of the accident, friends have said Haley was in a medically induced coma as he was being transported to New Dehli.
According to a statement from the Matt Haley Companies, Haley passed away on a medical transport from Leh, India, to New Dehli where he was to undergo further medical treatment.
One of the good ones
Tributes to Haley poured in after word of his passing was announced.
Michelle Freeman said, “I think the world lost a visionary. He was a human with a heart that was bigger than anyone I’ve ever met. The world has lost one of the good ones. ”
Freeman said Haley had the ability to really listen to people and make a person feel like the most important person in the world at that moment. She said Haley lived, loved, created and traveled to the fullest. Haley was an adventurer who loved to explore other cultures and was comfortable in front of kings or convicts.
“He was a gypsy soul. That was a part of his makeup. He loved to explore other places,” Freeman said. “He was excited about the trip. He loved to ride his motorcycle in far off places.”
Freeman and Haley first met when both were in recovery; she said her sister tried to set them up but they both decided the time was not right. They did however, strike up a friendship based on their shared mutual values: love of their community and philanthropy, Freeman said. Last spring, the two began a relationship that grew into love, she said.
Gov. Jack Markell said in a statement, “Carla and I are devastated by the loss of our friend, Matt Haley. We joined Matt just last month at two of his restaurants and were inspired by his plans to bring his message of making the most of second chances and the importance of a healthy recovery to people across Delaware and the country. He was a world-class humanitarian and we will miss him greatly. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Warren Rosenfeld worked with Haley and Kammerer on his restaurant venture, Rosenfeld’s Jewish Delicatessen in Ocean City, which opened last year.
Rosenfeld, a former lawyer, real estate developer and corporate CEO, said, “There are very few times when I have sat with someone and thought as I was speaking with them that I was talking to a genius in his field. He was just such a special person in his chosen field.”
“He lived a full life,” Rosenfeld said. “He passed away way too soon. Matt experienced the best of life and the worst of life. He was just someone really special.”
Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione said, “It was a sad day for Delaware and our restaurant scene. We also lost a great humanitarian who, frankly, died doing what he loved to do. That’s a small rose among a bunch of thorns. He will be missed. He did a lot of great things for this restaurant scene.”
Sen. Tom Carper said, “Delaware and the world lost a great humanitarian last night. While many people knew Matt as a great chef and restaurateur, my deepest respect came from meeting him in his role as a board member for La Esperanza, an organization that supports the integration and empowerment of the Hispanic community in Sussex County. I was both touched and impressed by his servant leadership and efforts to bring hope to so many both here and abroad. My heart goes out to Matt Haley’s family and friends and all whose lives he touched.”
Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association said, “There is no one else I know that exemplified such passion and commitment for helping those in need.”
Haley’s personal story was well known: he endured a difficult home life growing up and struggled with substance abuse. He spent four years in prison and, as part of his rehabilitation, learned to cook. Haley eventually founded SoDel Concepts, which operates numerous restaurants throughout the Cape Region. In 2012, Haley was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Haley’s death comes four months after the high point of his career: the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. Haley received the honor at the foundation’s New York gala in May.
“It was one of the more amazing nights of my life,” Haley said at the time. “I’m so grateful to be a part of it and represent our state.”
Of the tributes to Haley, Freeman said, “I feel like what you put into the world comes back to you. He put out love, kindness and compassion. That’s what happens with love. When you put it out into the world it grows exponentially and it comes back to you. I hope in the place he is in, he can feel that.”
In lieu of flowers please send donations to the charity Matt founded, the Global Delaware Fund at PO Box 49, Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 or www.theglobaldelawarefund.com.