A Life's Story
January 29, 2022
John Hakâs enthusiasm helped drive local music scene
By: Alan Small
John Hak became a beloved member of Winnipeg’s music community without playing a single note.
It was his enthusiasm to dance to music at the Good Will Social Club, the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club, the Bella Vista and many other nightclubs and bars in the downtown area that first caught the attention of Winnipeg’s performing artists.
At first, musicians didn’t know what to think of him.
But it was his eagerness to get to know who played the music he grooved to and strike up friendships that eased any worries and later made him endearing.
For almost 20 years, Hak was almost as much of the music scene as the musicians themselves.
“There was a time about 10 years ago, if John didn’t show up to your show you knew you weren’t in a cool band,” says Jesse Millar, who drums with Romi Mayes and the Honeysliders and works the door at Times Change(d) when he doesn’t. “If John showed up that night it’s, ‘Yes I’m in a cool band!’
“It was definitely a status thing.”
So it’s no surprise there were few dry eyes in the house on Dec. 16, when performers from across the city’s musical spectrum descended upon the Times Change(d) for a celebration, a big jam session for Hak, who had died Nov. 30 after a brain aneurysm, and later a stroke. He was 66.
The club’s owner, John Scoles, honoured Hak like he was a hall-of-fame hockey player, lifting one of Hak’s signature bright yellow shirts to the Times Change(d) rafters high above the dance floor on which he moved to the beat so many times.
Hak would usually wear bright clothing, especially yellow shirts, and sometimes matching yellow trousers, much to the chagrin of his wife Frances, to shows. His getup became his exuberant calling card when he toured the city’s nightspots.
“He had a route he would take on his bicycle for four shows and on the way back he’d go to another four,” Millar says.
Performers often first met Hak in between or after their sets, and Hak would ask the names of everyone on stage. He would jot down his findings in a little notebook and add them to larger journals at home.
In later years, he would post them on his Facebook page that bands would often check out, hoping their show was included on his night’s journey.
Keri and Devin Latimer, the husband-and-wife musicians that make up the group Leaf Rapids, met Hak about 15 years ago after a set when they were part of the local band Nathan.
“He was asking my name, the spelling and my husband’s name and my children’s names. He was very thorough,” Keri Latimer says. “Our children at the time were quite young and we would bring them everywhere, which is why he was probably asking.”
Taking notes of what he saw and whom he met wasn’t limited to concerts, Frances Hak says. He left behind stacks of notebooks and scribblers from his travels, whether from around the world or close to home, of the places he saw, things he read and the people he met, sometimes including rough sketches and maps as reminders for future visits.
Hak was born in Winnipeg, but at 10 his family, Dutch immigrants, moved to a dairy farm near St. Pierre-Jolys, about 60 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
When he graduated from high school, he left home and began visiting the world, hitchhiking his way from Manitoba to Morocco to Madras, for two years, Frances Hak says.
John and Frances met at the University of Manitoba, an art-history class in 1977, and it wasn’t long before the two were hitchhiking together to Central and South America. They married in 1981 and last year celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
While he graduated from the University of Winnipeg with a double major in math and environmental ecology, he went on to become a computer systems analyst, most recently with the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba.
The Haks’ lives changed when their son, Aaron, died in 2003 at the age of 19.
That’s when he began focusing on Winnipeg’s music scene, and he would sometimes share his grief and fond stories with the musicians he danced to.
“That’s where the music really became important to him. He needed a place to deal with the grief, and the music let him feel,” Frances says. “He was a little bit eccentric in that he lived the life that he wanted to live, as much as he could.”
He also took notes about the many places he visited, whether it was famous sites in Greece and Egypt or villages in Manitoba.
“What he would do quite often on a Filmon Friday, he would take the car and go for a drive and explore different villages in Manitoba. He would look for hiking trails in all the tiny, little villages,” she says.
One list from 2004 looks like he visited nearly every community the province, “no repeats no drive by’s” it says.
Among the many notes the grandfather of two left behind is another list, “214 Wonderful Energetic Local Bands that I have danced to from 2005-2015.”
It’s a who’s-who of Winnipeg performers from recent times, from Juno Award-winners to weekend rockers. Just a list, with Hak offering no other details or opinions.
While Frances knew of her husband’s love of music, and she sometimes accompanied him to shows, she was unaware how much of a connection he had made with people a generation younger than him.
“That was what was so incredible to me. I had young fellows come, and they were in tears because he had passed away. It was unbelievable,” she remembers of the Times Change(d) celebration night.
“I loved that these were people who took John the way he was and sincerely loved him.”