Tributes to Rikki Hall

I love Rikki Hall. He was one of the smartest people I ever met, and one of the most passionate, too. When he cared about an issue or a cause or a political candidate, he advocated with all his heart. He helped me tremendously with my two campaigns for mayor. I always wanted to know what Rikki thought about an issue, even if I disagreed with him. He set the debate and dialogue in our city for years, and his activism helped us become more environmentally focused. I will miss Rikki deeply. My heart goes out to Kim and to all of his family.

—Madeline Rogero, mayor, City of Knoxville

Such deep sadness never finds the words. I remember the first time I met Rikki Hall, about 15 years ago, not long after Robert and I moved downtown. We stopped to chat with him outside Harold's Deli on the 100 Block where he was delivering Hellbenders from the bed of his truck. Robert already knew him and was clearly a fan. I was first struck by that smile. It never disappeared, even while he was talking about the challenges of keeping the Press afloat. At the time he was doing it all—the writing, editing, delivering—but it was obvious, despite the difficulties, he was in his element. People like Rikki give off a light, an aura not easily explained but palpable and magnetic. He was a beautiful man with a beautiful mind, but he also had a beautiful spirit—open, generous, humble, peaceful, joyful—a combination of gifts rarely encountered. Knowing him, I think, was a gift to all of us. To Kim and all the family, my deepest sympathy for your loss.

—Judy Loest, poet

Rikki taught me that nature is the great teacher and that infinite wonder is a mere two steps out of your kitchen back door. My tribute to him will be to never forget that.

He also could also do great things with a Robyn Hitchcock song.

—Todd Steed, musician

Regardless of your beliefs … whether you think Rikki is sitting on the right hand of Jesus, peppering him with questions; or awakening in a new body as a newborn infant; or wandering through some metaphysical version of Planet Earth reveling in revealed secrets and knowledge hidden from mortal eyes; or simply awaiting the eventual return to dust that will nourish the growth of trees he loved so much … regardless of those things, know this: He will be missed. If you loved him, as Kim and his friends did, his loss is a deep and powerful ache. If you knew him casually, as I did, it is an earthquake's aftershock, the sense that something profound and disturbing has happened. And if you didn't know him at all, I'm certain that the birds sound a little different this morning: Perhaps a little muted, a little melancholy, because he was one of the good guys. He loved this planet, this area, so much, and we are all, friends and acquaintances and strangers alike, a little less connected in his absence. Here's to you, Rikki Hall. Rest in peace and knowledge, wherever you are.

—Steve Wildsmith, music journalist, Maryville's Daily Times

Oh, Rikki—you are going to be so missed!

Rikki gave me my first real lesson in using data from voter registration/history in campaigns. It's a fair statement to say that without Rikki's help and encouragement, I don't know that I would have run so successfully at first. Thanks to Rikki, I came within 93 votes (as a write-in) of unseating a 37-year incumbent, and beat the other write-in candidate by a tremendous number of votes. No one expected that—except Rikki!

It's fair to say that he was the one who got me to really run for that seat in 2006. I'll never forget that on election night, rather than meeting everyone out at a bar, Rikki came over to my house and sat with me in front of the computers, tabulating and tallying votes from across the district. (Then we went out to a bar, and howled at the moon!)

I was always so impressed with Rikki's knowledge and passion for our natural world, his writing, and his thoughtfulness. I will miss you so very much!

—Amy Broyles, Knox County Commissioner

Despite his Gandhi-like spirit, Rikki could light some asses up in debate. I met him in an argument over the 2000 election. He called me a coward and a sell-out for supporting Gore over Nader, said my stand was an insult to democracy. I wound up contributing to Hellbender Press. One day a few years later, he sat on my porch and scolded me for swatting a female mosquito. He was a born teacher, and a fearless agent of the truth.

—Julie Auer Gautreau

Rikki Hall was known for many things, including his scientific mind, positive spirit, mischievous grin, and graceful nature. Some of my favorite memories, though, are of Rikki the music fan. Folks love to point out that he was the first to hit the dance floor at local shows, which is true, but he was also a knowledgeable and critical listener. When we first met, he and I talked about many of the Boston-based bands he'd gone to see when he was at MIT in the late '80s, primarily Dumptruck and Big Dipper, two faves of mine as well.

One of his perhaps less-endearing qualities to musical artists was his critical nature, which could be off-putting until you got used to it. In the words of David St. Hubbins, he could be "brutally frank." But he was honest and open-minded.

I remember distinctly a night at the Corner Lounge when the Tim Lee 3 debuted a song called "Chuck Berry in Space" that ended up on our first album. After the show, Rikki complimented us on our set but pointed out that he just "didn't like that new song at all."

A year or so later, after good2b3 came out, Rikki went out of his way to let me know that he'd re-evaluated "Chuck Berry" and that he quite liked it.

Wherever your spirit roams, my friend, I hope they have cool bands you can analyze and absorb, bobbing your head and doing that little dance you do all the while.

—Tim Lee, musician

I don't know anything about what happens once consciousness slips past mortality, but I know that, while he was here, Rikki Hall's spirit encompassed this life and this world in a way I doubt I'll ever encounter another human able to do.

Rikki was the most relentless and happy pursuer of the factual I've ever been privileged to know. He was unafraid of letting knowledge lead him away from preconceptions, and he was absolutely fearless in his recognition of all that he—and we—do not know.

Knoxville ought to hold an "Unknowing Day" in Rikki's honor or an "Unassuming Festival," in which we all shed our assumptions and unlearn all that we thought we knew.

It should have lots of bugs, too.

I love you, Rikki. Sleep now.

—Scott McNutt, former News Sentinel columnist, former Metro Pulse managing editor

Our friendship went all the way back to the early days of Jim Andrews' run for sheriff. Rikki fought valiantly for all of us to appreciate and to care for our natural world. He was the personification of all that is upbeat and moral and courageous. We will miss him greatly, but even those who never knew him are carrying on in his stead.

—Mark Harmon, former Knox County Commissioner

There was a beautiful fall weekend in October 2010 when I had no plans and wanted to go for a hike. I posted something on KnoxBlab looking for trail companions. Rikki sent me an e-mail and said he and Kim were heading into the Smokies in the morning with some friends to camp. It was their anniversary weekend, so of course they were going to spend it in their favorite place: outdoors. I showed up at Kim's house the next day, and they fed me an amazing breakfast. Then we headed out.

I only went four or five miles in with them—I didn't have camping gear and needed to get back out before dark. But what I remember is the way Rikki would stop every so often, transfixed by something I had walked right by—an insect, a reptile, a mushroom, a particular plant at a particular point in its life cycle. He and Kim would talk about it, identify it, photograph it. I love hiking, I love being out in the wild and away from everything, but to me it has always been a largely undifferentiated mass of unknowableness. To Rikki, it was a tableau of signifiers, a constellation of discrete living things no more or less important than himself. I don't think I've ever known anyone more alert to the life of the world.

Here's how he signed off that e-mail:

"Since the trail follows the river, the grade is quite agreeable, especially on the way out! We'll get in the water and turn over rocks and you'll understand what aquatic biodiversity can mean. R"

—Jesse Mayshark, City of Knoxville communications director, former Metro Pulse editor

Rikki Hall was a football fan. I was a former football player – a glorious year at outside linebacker at a small private college in Virginia. Together we were roommates in North Knoxville from 2000 to 2001 and friends for many years. To think of a guy who seemed to me to have more in common with a character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel as a recondite Vols fan is a picture of perfect absurdity. Rikki was the Gussie Fink-Nottle, or the-chap-you-asked-about-sexual-habits-of-caddis-flies, to my Bertram Wooster, or the-chap-who-surprised-you-with-knowing-a-chap-who-knew-about-the-sexual-habits-of-caddis-flies.

Anyhow, the organic nature of the game of football fascinated Rikki. Where your average person saw men blasting about in orange costumes, Rikki saw ants. That's right: insects of the order Hymenoptera, family Formicidae. He hit upon this connection as we both eased through a case of India Pale Ale watching a WAC team die a horrible death at the hands of some higher order of Big Ten team on ESPN. He asked me how "roll coverage" was different from straight man-to-man pass defense. He shouted out "ANTS! That's just how ants defend their nests against intruders." I was mystified but took his word as gold. He was, after all, a biologist and I was a bit drunk.

Friday next, he came out to the living room after being in his chamber for most of the week. He had his laptop in hand and plopped it down in front of me. "Here. I think I have modeled this week's games based on ant behavior." Yes, he coded a complex model in Java based on basic offensive statistics and how ants would, with varying levels of success, defend against such. The next day – with more IPA – we tested his hypothesis. It hit to the tune of 80 percent correct picks across the gamut of Top 25 teams.

I had an idea. The next week he ran the model again. Knowing a couple of fellows who would take a wager or two on such games, I bet a parley card of 10 games for a few bucks. Just for fun, you know. It hit. The genius had it all figured out. I went back to him and told him what I had done. He looked at me with eyes of cold stone. "You what?" He wasn't so furious as aghast. For Rikki, this knowledge was pure and I had sullied it a bit. I think it was the only time I ever saw him a bit angry. "You can't do that again." I promised I wouldn't. He then sat down and asked me how stunting on the defensive line worked. I explained. "That's just how soldier ants do it!" He disappeared into his room to massage the model.

—Toby Martin Applegate, Department of Geography, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Rikki Hall wasn't afraid to speak truth to power, whether advocating for building a Museum of Appalachian Natural History instead of a business park at Midway Road, or pointing out the common sense reasons for passing the Hillside and Ridgetop Plan. He was a careful listener and offered sage advice whenever I asked. His passing is a great loss for our community as well as for his family and many friends.

—Lisa Starbuck

One of the most successful people that I have ever known left us last night, though he has left the world a better place. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children … to leave the world a better place ... to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." Rikki Hall, thank you for sharing with us YOU, in the most authentic way, and always expanding your circle and letting others look through your lens to see what a beautiful world we live in.

—Victoria DeFreese, former Knox County Commissioner