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Woster: Mal Hinckley impacted hundreds by singing the tune of life

Hundreds of men and women across the state will tell you, though, that they are better for having known him

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

My second morning in alcohol treatment, a little guy with a big smile came up and said, “Hang in there, buddy.’’

He looked me over and added, “It gets better every day. You don’t think so now, but it does.’’

He asked if I wanted to grab a cup of coffee. I said I didn’t feel like coffee. I was in no mood to hang around with this way-too-happy guy. He wouldn’t leave me alone. In fact, he said, “It wasn’t an invitation. I’m your counselor. Let’s go get coffee.’’

That’s how I came to know Mal Hinckley. It’s about the only time I ever heard him be abrupt or forceful with anyone. His first name was Robert, but nobody called him anything but “Mal.’’ Over the next 30 days, I saw a lot of Mal. I drank gallons of coffee with him and played guitars with him on Saturday nights at the treatment center sing-a-longs. You wouldn’t figure a bunch of just-sober drunks would be in the same ZIP code with a group sing on a Saturday night, but Mal made it work.

When I was having good days, Mal would have the biggest grin of anybody in the place. When I was struggling, he was always there to say, “Hang in there, buddy. It gets better every day.’’ It’s one of those silly sayings that shouldn’t mean a thing, like “Easy does it’’ and “One day at a time.’’ When Mal said it, though, it meant the world.

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He wasn’t important in the way the world uses that word. Hundreds of men and women across the state will tell you, though, that they are better for having known him, and he was one of the most important people in their lives.

Mal died unexpectedly during the Easter weekend. He was 82. He’d done a fair share of living, but his death still came too soon. The news took me back to that first meeting in treatment with a guy who helped save my life. He helped a whole bunch of down-and-out folks during his years in counseling. He would be embarrassed to read that. He didn’t think he was anything special. That was part of what made him special.

Mal grew up in the middle of South Dakota. He worked hard his whole life, never asked for anything he didn’t earn. He was a humble guy but proud of his family and his Vietnam-era service. He served in the Navy Seabees in places like Thailand. He told me that in his down time after duty, he’d listen to old country music and early 1950s ballads. A guy can learn a lot of good dance tunes that way, and Mal had a boatload of music packed inside him.

After his service, he played with dance bands in the Pierre area. Once I’d finished treatment and those Saturday sing-alongs, Mal and I formed a dance band with a couple of other Pierre guys. We played dances for 15 or 20 years together. We weren’t very polished, but we played songs people recognized and liked, and we had some grand old times on a bunch of Friday and Saturday nights.

Mal played lead. He didn’t try to be flashy, but he could coax fine licks from a keyboard, an accordion or a Stratocaster guitar. What amazed me was that he could play a song he’d never heard as comfortably as one we did every gig. I wrote a couple of songs that we played. The first time we did each of those originals, I showed the bass guy the chord progressions before the dance. With Mal, I just told him the key and hit it. By the time I’d sung a verse and chorus, he could throw out a lead line that sounded great, whether he was on piano, accordion or guitar at the time.

Mal didn’t sing in the band. He knew harmonies, but mostly he just grinned and created the instrumental leads. When I’d introduce the band, I’d say of Mal, “He doesn’t say much, but he turns out some great music.’’

He was that way in life, too.

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