Island Park never sounded so good in Wellsville. Music played, people laughed and drinks were flowing.
It was a memorial service for Mike Hile, who died on Sept. 28 at the age of 54. There were no men of cloth, no prepared speeches or itinerary, just people gathering around 1:10 p.m. for a 1 p.m. service. Guitars plugged into amps, amps plugged into the wall. His obituary garnered 89 likes and 45 shares off the newspaper Facebook page.
All for a man whose obituary simply said he was a U.S. Citizen and a citizen of Wellsville. It talked about the community helping him, listing restaurants to the police department, and said he had earned his GED at some point in life.
As the band played, it became clear this was no ordinary band or memorial service. It was one of the most established bands in the area, Zoar, and they were joined by other musicians and business owners.
Rick Whitwood, who owns the Music Alley, and Rich Shear, who owns Hamilton Shoes, were both playing. They didn't have to. Mike didn't do business with them. Mike actually cost Rick money over the years, as he would pay him to pick up lunch or give him and his "crew" a few dollars to make it through the week.
But they were honored to be playing this memorial, even if it was for a man who was arrested over 200 times in his life, mostly for being intoxicated in public.
However, to get power for the event, the Allegany County Sheriff's Office, the Wellsville Police Department and the Town of Wellsville had to work together, as Island Park is usually shut down after Oct. 1. After this announcement, the band played Folsom Prison Blues.
Whitwood stopped between Knockin' on Heaven's Door and a few Tom Petty songs to speak. "There's always a song that comes to mind, and it's a line from a Kris Kristofferson song, "He was a walking contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction. Mikey, like we all do, lived up to that phrase," said Whitwood. "So many people over the years say Mike could have been valedictorian of his class, or a rocket scientist. I used to laugh, we all know Mike was a very smart guy, but that part is fiction. But we all knew he was a great guy. When those stories would come up, Mike would give me that sly grin of his and say, 'I'm a good guy, when I'm sleeping.' "
Unlike many who attended the memorial service, Shear drove into Island Park. That was not lost on him.
"I'm glad to be here to pay tribute to a Wellsville icon," said Shear. "Sometimes Mike would slip into my store at night and look around and wonder, 'Am I supposed to be here?' One time he came in on a slow Thursday night and sat down in a chair. And he fell asleep. He was there 45 minutes and a woman came in and I sat her down a few seats away from Mike who was snoring by now. "Despite Mike sleeping, she bought a few things," Shear continued. "That is Wellsville and part of what we do. We welcome people from all walks of life into our businesses and into our lives and Mike was one of the special people." Mike Hile could be rough around the edges when he was drinking. He would swear a bit, he looked like he wanted to fight, but he never wanted to fight. As the service wore on, more and more people showed up. Some over an hour late. They flipped open their phones to snap a photo, they sang, some danced.
When Zoar played Tom Petty, many sang from the heart, "You don't know what it feels .. to be me." One even pointed to her heart. Like Mike, she too had a rough life. Maybe there was an addiction she battles. Some days she wins, some days she loses. But most people don't know what it feels, to be her.
With the Keystone Light flowing, a man in wheelchair motors up to two strangers at a picnic bench and quoted the late Mike Hile: "I'm here to bug ya cause I don't care to know ya." Drummer Monte Case used to help Mike as well. He had apartments. When Mike didn't pay rent or was asked to move out, he wound up on Monte's couch. Monte proved that it was just business and nothing personal.
"All three of us played music in this park (Whitwood, Case and Cort Dunham) as we were coming through and we all saw Mike down here on the occasions the music was flowing, so this kind of brings us full circle," said Whitwood.
With that, the band packed up, the photo boards were put away and most people walked away with lighter loads than they brought in, empty coolers and bags.
There will never be another Mike Hile in Wellsville. No one would stand for it, no one would support it. Only Mike could pull it off and whether people like it or not, his chapter will be a part of Wellsville history. Which made Saturday's tribute a perfect ending. (John Anderson is the regional editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)