FENWICK ISLAND — The coastal Delaware and Maryland resort community was stunned this week by the passing of noted restaurateur and philanthropist Matt Haley, who lost his life following a motorcycle accident on Monday while on a humanitarian mission in India and Nepal.
On Tuesday, the news started to trickle out that Haley, 53, had been critically injured in a motorcycle collision in Leh, India at the outset of his humanitarian mission, but that his condition was improving. By Wednesday morning, however, the sad news came out that Haley had passed away while on a medi-jet transport from Leh to New Dehli.
Haley was the founder and CEO of Matt Haley Companies based in Rehoboth, which owns and operates top-notch restaurants throughout Sussex County including the popular Blue Coast in Bethany and Catch 54 in Fenwick, to name a couple. Haley, the 2014 recipient of the James Beard Humanitarian Award, was on a six-week humanitarian mission through northwestern India and Nepal on Monday when he was involved in a motorcycle accident near the town of Leh, India. At the time, he was traveling with international film maker and motorcycle expert Guarav Jani.
Haley had been a frequent visitor to India and Nepal, where he had done considerable charity work. In 2011, he founded a non-profit foundation called the Global Delaware Fund (GDF), which supports education and the arts and protects children both globally and locally. In Delaware, the GDF has contributed funds and services to the Delaware Adolescent Program, the Boys and Girls Club, the Food Bank of Delaware, the Delaware KIDS Fund, Children and Family First, the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, Camp Barnes, Casa San Francisco and the United Way of Delaware.
Haley, a Washington D.C. native, a chef and entrepreneur, was the recipient of the 2014 James Beard Humanitarian Award and the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 National Humanitarian Award, along with the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ 2014 National Humanitarian Award.
His tragic passing this week has left a huge void in not only the culinary fabric, but more importantly the generous spirit of the resort community. In an area known for its endless generosity and helping those in need, Haley took philanthropy to a different level and those he left behind have vowed to continue his work.
“The entire team of the Matt Haley Companies is incredibly saddened by this huge loss,” said Matt Haley Companies President and COO Scott Hammerer.
Haley had recently joined the Board of Directors for the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, a charitable organization that also runs the popular Freeman Stage concert venue. Freeman Foundation officials were saddened by the loss this week.
“We are incredibly saddened to hear of the passing of our friend and Joshua M. Freeman Foundation Board member Matt Haley,” the statement reads. “Matt joined our Board of Directors in 2012 and his impact on our organization’s operations and outlook was immediate. Matt’s work with the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation was short, but everlasting. His passion for food and philanthropy was infectious and he used both to improve the lives of others. We know that he left his mark on this world both locally and globally and we will be forever grateful for his service to our organization and our community.”
Delaware elected officials also mourned Haley’s untimely death this week and recalled better times when the chef and entrepreneur was growing his companies and becoming a force for philanthropy locally and around the world.
“Matt Haley was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met,” said U.S. Senator Chris Coons. “He was so much more than a talented chef and restaurateur. He was such a good man. He was a great Delawarean. He was a friend. His death is heartbreaking.”
Haley’s ascent to one of the top chefs and entrepreneurs in the area, and his prestigious James Beard Foundation Award earlier this year was not an easy one. He suffered a difficult childhood that led to a life of addiction and even a hefty jail sentence in his young life. From the early life lessons learned, Haley rededicated himself to helping others and became an amazing success story.
“Matt got a second chance at life and vowed to seize it,” said Coons. “He was a reminder to all of us that we should embrace life and live it fully and graciously and gratefully every single day. His spirit, enthusiasm and creativity were infectious. He endlessly sought and found opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives. He didn’t seek attention for his good works, but he certainly deserved it.”
Coons related a recent story to illustrate Haley’s dedication to helping others.
“The weekend before Matt left for India, I met a woman in Dover, a recovering addict who couldn’t find work because she couldn’t find anyone willing to take a chance on her and to believe in her,” he said. “I told her Matt’s story and the incredible life he’d made after the mistakes of his youth. I called Matt the next day and he leapt at the opportunity to help her. He took her number and promised to call her right away because he was getting on a plane the next morning.”
Coons said Haley told him of some of the dangers involved with his humanitarian mission to India and Nepal.
“He told me about the trip and the risks involved,” he said. “He couldn’t wait to see his dear friends in Nepal, and he was excited to fulfill a promise he had made to a friend in the region. Matt was going there on a mission to bring what his heart made possible. I told him how proud I was to know him.”
Coons said that interaction over the addict struggling to find work was one of his last with Haley.
“I can’t believe he’s gone and I’m so grateful that the last thing we got to do together was try to help someone,” he said. “That was Matt. That’s what he did. I’m going to miss his friendship, generosity and compassion and his passionate commitment to our community. My heart aches for his family and friends.”
U.S. Congressman John Carney also got to know Haley well through his culinary accomplishments and his philanthropic work.
“I’m very sad to hear of Matt Haley’s passing,” he said. “It’s devastating news for all of Delaware, but in particular the Sussex County community where is caring, giving presence was most clearly felt.”
Carney said the day before Haley’s passing, the congressman rode along with a group of Meals on Wheels volunteers in Lewes to help deliver healthy food to those in need and the group met at Fish On, one of Haley’s restaurants. Carney said he was told by one of the organizers of Haley’s recent commitment to preparing thousands of free meals from Fish On for Meals on Wheels recipients.
“That’s just one example of Matt’s commitment to service,” he said. “He was a tremendous ambassador for the state of Delaware and worked tirelessly to leverage his success for the good of others. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones. He will be greatly missed.”
Matt Haley Companies officials have asked that in lieu of flowers, please send donations to the charity he founded, the Global Delaware Fund, at P.O. Box 49, Rehoboth Beach, Del. 19971. Donations can also be made at www.globaldelawarefund.com.