The older I get, the faster time flies. Today my sons are grown but it doesn’t feel like much time has passed since my husband and I moved here in 1996 with a preschooler and toddler to begin an extraordinary life-chapter with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.
Two years later, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center opened its doors to the public. I was there. I remember it well.
The museum was a $211 million dollar, one-of-a-kind facility, and it easily gained international attention. Hundreds of tribal leaders, state and national political representatives, celebrity guests and patrons gathered outside the museum for a ceremonial ribbon cutting. Once finished, we ventured inside to tour the exhibits and back of house areas, and enjoyed elegant buffets, cocktail receptions and acoustic performances by Native American artists.
A press conference was held at the center of the soaring, glass-enclosed museum gathering space. It was a perfect setting amidst towering pines and bright blue skies to draw attention to the years of hard work by those who spent blood, sweat and tears cultivating life out of the seeds of an improbable vision. At the center of that press conference was our tribe’s Chairman, Richard “Skip” Hayward.
Skip received well-deserved accolades – not only as an extraordinary visionary – but a passionate advocate for the resurgence of a once conquered and forgotten Indian tribe. Everything about that day seemed to radiate a sense of excellence.
Fast-forward to today, and I can hardly believe next month marks the museum’s 15th anniversary. Frankly, I nearly forgot this milestone until a museum publication arrived in the mail, Crossroads. As I eagerly flipped through page after page of memoir articles, timelines and photos depicting featured performers and the early days of the museum’s development, I was surprised to find no mention of Richard “Skip” Hayward in any part of that publication.
Not one article. Not a single photo. Not even a footnote. Nada.
Something is seriously wrong with that.
I admit I wasn’t here in the early days. I didn’t live in trailers plumbed with garden hoses. I didn’t gather with others to brainstorm on ideas to develop this swampy, rocky, heavily wooded seventeenth century Indian reservation. I never mucked out the hog pens, and I didn’t dig up rocks and prepare soil for planting the community garden. I didn’t chop firewood or set up a hydroponic green house, and I never stirred giant vats of boiling maple tree sap for hours on end during the dead of winter. I wasn’t at the Mr. Pizza restaurant in the early days, splattered with flour and tomato sauce, flinging pizza dough and serving up pitchers of beer and soda to those who met to discuss how a formal tribal government should look.
But Skip was.
Predictably, a few critics surfaced within the tribe over the years, envious over their own lack of “spot light” recognition. Those critics eagerly pointed out, time and time again, how Skip was “not the only one” living at Mashantucket and working hard during those early days.
Alright then, I’m sure he wasn’t. But hear me out on this one.
For any of us to deny that Richard “Skip” Hayward possessed the pioneering vision and leadership that was pivotal to the recognition of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the early development of our community and business enterprises, we wouldn’t merely be irresponsible, we would be downright childish.
Let’s consider the odds of what happened at Mashantucket over the last thirty years. And as we do, let’s keep in mind how one tiny spark can harness enough power to set ablaze millions of acres of land. (I’ll circle back around to that part in a moment.)
Consider how one man – mocked by locals for what was considered “foolish ambition” – somehow became a relentless force to be reckoned with, as well as the face of an unlikely success story recognized world-wide.
Consider how, when not a single American bank would provide a business development loan, one Malaysian billionaire happened to cross Skip’s path and did just that. Consider the odds for how this foreign investor found himself in right place at the right time, brainstorming the potential for unique business concepts with a rugged yankee pipe fitter – high school and Bible school educated – who possessed the perfect combination of charisma, vision and influence. Consider the odds for how, among few Mashantuckets arose one extraordinarily ordinary agent for change. And whether you love it or hate it, consider how one Indian casino concept – during an era when none like it existed – became the pioneering “spark” that rapidly set this nation ablaze, spawning what is now a $28 billion dollar industry.
With odds like those, no one saw it coming. Least of all Skip.
I believe Skip Hayward deserves some recognition.
Skip’s passion for history and culture to be represented in everything built on the reservation deserves recognition. His desire to see tribal members prosper no matter what family they were born into deserves recognition. His infectious enthusiasm for telling “war” stories about Pequot ancestors, historical sites, legends, ghost stories and the Underground Railroad deserves recognition. His vision for freedom – freedom from debt, freedom of opportunity, freedom to take risks, fail, learn and grow, and freedom to empower future generations of leaders – deserves recognition.
I miss that old brown 70’s era Lincoln Town Car Skip drove each day while others around him strived to out-do one another with luxury cars and limousine transportation. I miss how his arrival to work provoked a scramble of anxious employees manning their stations to prepare and greet him. I miss his knack for having favor with all kinds of people, from business executives, politicians and celebrities to welders, bikers, landscapers and banquet servers. Skip related well with almost everyone due to his rare combination of no-nonsense candor, conviction and approachability. He often went out of his way to recognize those working in service professions. He had walked in their shoes. He never forgot where he came from. He always took time to see them, thank and encourage them.
I even miss his temper. Richard “Skip” Hayward is human, after all…with as many faults, quirks, stubbornness, baggage and frustrations as any one else, often misunderstood by those envious or suspicious of his abilities and good fortune. Skip held a strong internal conviction to give his people a “leg up” rather than a “hand out”. He wanted people to work hard and be rewarded for it. He often voiced frustration with those who believed differently – those with entitlement attitudes demanding instant wealth.
Skip grew angry over uncontrolled spending, particularly the rate at which the tribe’s consultant and agency contracts exponentially grew, numbering into the thousands. Management often struck lucrative business deals for their industry buddies with the tribe or Foxwoods. To gain a better idea of how much money was funneled outside the tribe through such deals, Skip requested a copy of every active consultant contract. The documents were gathered together, clipped into 3-ring binders and quickly delivered as requested. The results were staggering. Skip’s office was half filled by those binders, stacked about four feet high.
Memories like these cause me wonder what would have happened had Skip continued as the chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. Would we be in the same situation we find ourselves in now? Maybe yes, maybe no. Perhaps it was always inevitable, since one man cannot control the actions and intentions of hundreds. But regardless of what anyone says or thinks about him, few can argue Richard “Skip” Hayward was a passionate leader completely consumed by a vision…a Pequot who did everything he could think of to help his tribe.
I, for one, will never forget.