Pembroke – A local musician who passed away last week after a courageous battle with brain cancer is being remembered not only for his constant smile and love of all things Irish, but also as a teacher, mentor, performer, amateur therapist and a man whose passion for music and the Ottawa Valley will live on long after his ashes are scattered near his beloved cottage deep in Algonquin Park.
Pat Hammel died at his Pembroke home surrounded by family at the age of 55. He was diagnosed with Glioblastoma in March 2020 after he began having difficulty with vision in his left eye. His widow, Kathy, said although the diagnosis left little room for optimism, he was determined to live life to the fullest and continue to do what he loved most, and that involved teaching music and performing for as long as he was able.
“No matter how badly you felt or what you were going through, Pat just had a passion for life,” she told the Leader. “I, like so many thousands of others he taught over the years, just marvelled at his patience and his ability to make you feel better. A friend of mine was one of Pat’s students and she joked his music lessons were cheaper than going to see a therapist.
“Sometimes he would sit with a student and just listen and the guitars never came out of the cases. He had that ability to make you feel better.”
Mrs. Hammel said he taught between 26 to 30 students a week and over the course of 30 years, he would influence thousands of students to not only play guitar, but instill in them a level of confidence they never knew they had. Many would go on to perform before audiences of all sizes.
When she announced his passing on his Facebook page last week, the response was immediate and overwhelming. There are hundreds of tributes not only from former students, but several local organizations recognized his kindness and generosity for the countless fundraisers where he appeared as both a solo performer and as the founder and heart and soul of The Ghost Town Cryers.
Ryan Paulson, a former reporter for the Pembroke Observer, and now a lawyer who has established his firm in Pembroke and is a member of the Ghost Town Cryers, said the Pat Hammel who appeared on stage as lead singer was the real Pat Hammel.
“He was the life of the party and he could get a crowd full of people out of their chairs and fill the dance floor just by singing and laughing on stage,” he said. “He was always smiling and laughing and cheering on the crowd. That was Pat Hammel.”
He said his first meeting with Mr. Hammel was completely accidental and unplanned. For several years he had hosted a weekly jam session every Wednesday at The Shanty House in Petawawa and along with Mr. Paulson, several local musicians were invited to play with him.
“It was around 2012 when I went to the Shanty and I approached the drummer and asked him if there was a way I could play with them or if he had a playlist I could look at,” he said. “Next thing I know he handed me the drum sticks and told me to take over and he went to the bar. I played one song and Pat turned around with a kind of a deer-in-the-headlight look and asked if I knew the next song. Without missing a beat he just smiled and told me to keep going. So technically, I was drumming for Pat before I even met him, but we just clicked and have been friends ever since.”
Although Mr. Hammel always had fun on stage, off stage he separated the musical business from fun. Mr. Paulson said his late friend never threw his weight around but he instilled a sense of professionalism in all those associated with his band.
“Members of the band would come and go and after or before a show Pat and I would have comical discussions or Pat could have deep philosophical debates,” he said. “But he made sure we were always ready for a concert and we always had fun. No matter where we played it seems everyone knew Pat and our band was a community and we were an extended family. It was Pat’s world and we just lived in it.”
Anyone who knew Mr. Hammel would agree it was his generosity and desire to help others that defined who he really was. Mrs. Hammel said it would be difficult to name a fundraiser or charitable event held over the last 15 years that Mr. Hammel was not involved in. When asked to perform, he would often play at a reduced rate in order to cover expenses and often donated his services. She said his favourite venue was the Celebration of Life held in Renfrew for several years and a close second was anything to do with the Robbie Dean Centre in order to raise money to help youth and families dealing with mental illness.
Instrumental In Raising Thousands
Tom Sidney, a councillor at the centre who specializes in suicide prevention and post-suicide de-briefing, knows firsthand of Mr. Hammel’s generosity.
“I first met Pat in 2013 when he came to the Robbie Dean Centre with a fundraising idea after he heard me speak at an event in Westmeath where the band was playing,” he told the Leader. “The Ghost Town Cryers played almost every major fundraising event for the centre and my wife and I became close friends with the band as well. We have been very fortunate to have had them play in our back yard a few times including our wedding and that made it even more special.”
Mr. Sidney said his late friend always believed in the Robbie Dean Centre and without his support, he questioned whether the centre would have been able to survive financially.
“Pat made every event or occasion special, not only because of his outstanding talent, but his ability to be a story teller, sometimes a comedian, and he always would say hito people he knew from the stage he was playing on. Pat was very humble and he was always there for people.”
Mr. Sidney suffered a near-fatal accident a few years ago that left him paralyzed from the neck down and he spent months in rehabilitation to regain the use of his limbs.
“When I had my spinal injury he immediately reached out to my wife, Shelly offering her his support and instantly planned a fundraiser for us. He has blessed thousands of people and maybe more importantly, he was instrumental in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for so many charity events. Our communities are forever a little emptier for losing Pat. It's an honour and a privilege to be able to say Pat is a great friend.”
Mrs. Hammel said she expected a large response to his passing, but even she was amazed at just how many people reached out to her to express their condolences, and also to tell a “Pat” story on the effect he had on them.
“I can’t even guess as to how many people have messaged me or put a posting on his Facebook page and it really tells you just how special he really was,” she said.
She said Pat’s favourite day of the year was St. Patrick’s Day and in his honour the family and a few friends are holding an old fashioned Irish Wake on March 17 to celebrate his life.
“The band always played The Night Pat Murphy Died on St. Patrick’s Day so it will be interesting to see who starts the song first at his wake.”
When asked if her late husband could relay a farewell message to all his family and friends, Mrs. Hammel, fighting back tears, said his message would be a simple one.
“Pat actually wrote me a letter the day before he was scheduled for his craniotomy just in case something should happen during the procedure,” she said. “I finally was able to read it the other day and the last thing he told me was that life was for living, so live it.
“Pat lived a good life and he touched a lot of people’s lives and he made their lives so much better. To anyone that knew Pat, you know that he would smile and say go live your life and enjoy the trip and be sure to have fun along the way.”
Respecting Mr. Hammel’s wishes, cremation has already taken place and his family will spread his ashes near the rustic cabin he inherited from his grandfather in Algonquin Park where he spent countless summers at Brent, a former CN employee town.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader