Be Nice to Each Other Out There

31 Jan Be Nice to Each Other Out There

The story of Matt Dibley’s legacy living on.

It was an unseasonably warm day in March. Folks in and around Elkhart County went about their days as usual. Among them was Heather Streiter, then a 17-year-old getting ready for her day at Concord High School.

She set down her straightener on her marble Jack-and-Jill vanity she shared with her sister Meghan, rushed to pile her things together, nabbed her bag from the table, and flung the door open.

Her Honda Civic carted her down the same old streets. She used the time as she normally did to think about typical high school things: How will I finish that trig assignment before 4th period? Can I get away with my earbuds in chemistry today? Did I forget my Burt’s Bees again?

She made her way north on County Road 45, crossed the tracks near Ox Bow County Park, and noticed something a little different. Rising above the fray of commercial sprawl and strip malls, a simple photograph of a man adorned a billboard. It obviously wasn’t stock art. The photograph’s subject, Matt Dibley, looked like he was straight out of central casting, there was an authenticity about him that Patagonia advertisers would pay millions to replicate. And there was something else. Something shiny. Something that gave the photo a lightness, a glitter.

The photo was set in a beautiful woods, and the light through the sugar maples warmed Dibley’s face perfectly. His unkempt facial hair framed eyes peering down, flanked with newly forming wrinkles–lines that told the story of a million smiles before them. His long locks, pulled back loosely, sat soft on broad shoulders bedecked in the perfect plaid shirt. He was studying something. He looked down with an ever-so-slightly furrowed brow, staring at a freshly picked mushroom.

Heather slowed and thanked the stoplight for answering her subconscious request. Her aged-maroon Civic rolled to a stop. She couldn’t stop reading the words, emblazoned on the billboard in a simple white sans serif font. Her eyes moved up and left as if literally rolling the phrase around in her head to see it from all directions: “Be nice to each other out there, people.” It was simple, but it stole the breath from her chest for just a moment.

Matt woke with the birds in his small cabin, nestled among those sugar maples in the Vermont foothills. Electricity, running water, and a computer were all unneeded complications. Piles of books littered the wooden floor. He had undoubtedly read a few chapters the night before. The newly fallen snow on the mountains meant it was time for one of Matt’s favorite rituals. He’d strap on two tattered snowshoes and set off down a mile-long path to find his trusty blue car.

He shared more than a sensibility with Heather. His Civic, too, was an essential piece of his story. It had taken him across the country more times than he could count; it had been his companion.

Eventually, Matt would clear his car of snow and head to work. Matt had been involved from the beginning at a quickly rising kombucha company. The fizzy tea, fermented with bacteria and yeast, was a staple of Matt’s diet and was growing in popularity around the country. At Aqua ViTea, Matt wore many hats. His humble way of life meant that even his closest friends and family members would never know how important his role at the company was. He had become a master brewer, responsible for much of the company’s success.

The business of Aqua ViTea wasn’t a priority in Matt’s life. He was happy to be spreading a great product among great people, but he couldn’t have cared less about monetary reward. His reward was found in the relationships he formed through the endeavor and the comfort of living his unique lifestyle. And live life he did.

In many ways, Matt was straight out of central casting. He rejected modernity — not for moral reasons, but because he knew life could benefit from simplicity. In a world of never-ending gadgetry, it was a secret that only he seemed to know. Matt lived and breathed nature. He’d hike daily through the Vermont mountains, foraging for mushrooms or just taking the time to appreciate the beauty and fecundity of nature.

But Matt would still make the rounds, driving from natural food stores to supermarkets in the area. He’d deliver his pride and joy in increasing quantities to meet demand. A vibrant character, he’d greet each and every customer with a huge smile. His presence was felt by everyone. Asking about life’s journey and sharing stories, he always made time to truly know people. And without fail, as he set off on his next delivery, his next venture, his next hike…he’d utter a mantra. Matt never thought of it as out of the ordinary; like the most brilliant men before him, he would never truly understand how special he was.

“Be nice to each other out there, people,” he’d instruct. His mantra was the furthest from corny or cliche. It was heartfelt and, more important than anything, came from a place of love. The words would soar into the ether, infecting everyone around him, brushing them all with that glitter.

Those words, that ethos, that glitter…it simply wouldn’t end when Matt’s life was cut tragically short. His spirit was a force too strong to end with his earthly body. He would live on and impact the world.

Matt’s father, Mike Dibley, sat at his dining room table. His hand nervously tapped on the impeccably clean wood surface as he began to tell the story of Matt’s legacy. Mike’s home had a simplistic beauty about it. A brief rain had just let up, and the sun shone over crystal clear Indiana Lake just beyond his backyard. The walls were decorated with bits of his Italian heritage. Coming from the Lucchese family, and like any good Italian, Mike had a map of Italy in the living room that he proudly used to show off his lineage.

But where pieces of Italy were not, pieces of Matt were. Paintings, portraits, and photos of beautiful Matt were around every corner. It felt nothing like a memorial, though — more of a celebration. Matt’s lifestyle was a point of great satisfaction for a proud father. The art exuded everything to beam about. A black and white photo of Matt taking a moment of self-reflection. Another painting of his glowing, bearded face that had been done by the folks at Aqua ViTea. Other, smaller mementos showed a sprawling family together, celebrating with Matt and for Matt.

Nearly two years have passed since the tragedy. Mike was dressed like he had stepped off the pages of a J. Crew catalog, in what felt like a recently staged house, on a perfect summer day. But the lacquer of a freshly cleaned floor and a pressed linen button-down shirt were thin. Beneath it was a hurting man. A man who had suffered the unimaginable. A father who had outlived his child.

Mike and his family knew they were charged with filling some enormous shoes, but they didn’t know how. It wasn’t until Mike heard from one of his friends, who had also tragically lost a child, that he would figure out how to honor his son. Amish Shah, having lost his beautiful, infant daughter, Sydney, had set up a fund through the Community Foundation of Elkhart County to honor her life. After hearing about this experience, Mike and the family made the decision to set up a fund that would serve as a vehicle to help keep Matt’s powerful message alive.

Mike spoke about the fund and its power. With a cracking voice and trembling hands, through an alternating current of joy and sorrow, he proudly shared his vision. The billboards would impact many thousands of people in those first months. Charity hockey games would raise funds for the impactful organizations. And that phrase, adorning signs and wall art, emblazoned on kombucha bottles, printed on T-shirts…that phrase will live on forever in our hearts, just as it will in our community, just as will Matt himself.

That billboard would change the trajectory of Heather’s day. Her interactions with friends, with family, with enemies (or whatever that means in high school), would be brushed with a bit of Matt’s glitter– with empathy, with understanding.

She would shrug off the negativity bias of the high school world. She would ignore the hurtful gazes and jeers of classmates less evolved than herself. She would pass on the positive vibes, filling rooms with a new energy and looking at life through a slightly refined lens. By day’s end, Heather would even sample the rhythm of the words on her own tongue. At first, shyly and quietly, she’d test the waters. It felt right. It felt impactful.

While the billboards have touched thousands of lives — impacting each and brushing them all with that glitter, Matt’s work on this mortal coil is far from done. In his words, he will forever find new ways to remind us of the simple, powerful mantra: “Be nice to each other out there, people.”