“This is the most challenging Repair Café ever, right here. How are we going to repair our broken hearts?” Kimiko Link of New Paltz spoke for many as she addressed stunned mourners gathered last Sunday afternoon in Rosendale’s Willow Kiln Park to honor the memory of John Wackman. Widely known in Ulster County and beyond as the prime pioneer of the Repair Café movement in the Hudson Valley, Wackman, age 69, died suddenly on Friday at his home in Kingston of an apparent heart attack.
Several family members and hundreds of friends and admirers turned out on short notice for the impromptu, informal outdoor memorial gathering, with New Orleans-style upbeat funeral tunes supplied by the Rosendale Improvement Association Brass Band and Social Club. One after another, attendees stepped up to a microphone to share personal anecdotes about a man they knew from many different walks of life. There were former colleagues from Wackman’s many years as a television producer, fellow volunteers at the Rosendale Theatre, coaches from several of the Repair Cafés he helped establish, proponents of local sustainability initiatives whose efforts frequently meshed with his.
The unanimity of themes in these remembrances was remarkable. Wackman seems to have struck everyone who crossed his path as a warm, joyful, kind human being, generous with his time, perpetually brimming with energy and enthusiasm, an exceptionally good listener with a gift for making people feel valued, for inspiring citizens to become activists, for creating a sense of community. Friends cited his love of music and the arts – he was the founder of the Rosendale Theatre’s Music Fan Film Series – and some of his lovable quirks, such as spending a college semester living in a tipi he built himself or bringing bag lunches of peanut-butter-and-cucumber sandwiches to work.
A Westchester native, Wackman earned a master’s degree in communication arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and began his writer/producer career at WMTV-Madison. He moved on to become an executive producer at New Hampshire Public Television, where he worked with Ken Burns and created, with host Mary Ann Esposito, the longest-running cooking series on television, Ciao Italia.
Later he became a vice president at Odyssey Productions in New York City, which became the Lightworks Producing Group, producing material for the Odyssey Channel, which became the Hallmark Channel. He left the television industry in 2009, studied massage and obtained certification as a masseur, specializing in work with clients with serious illness or chronic pain.
Wackman became inspired by the Repair Café movement that had recently sprung up in the Netherlands shortly before his moving to Ulster County in 2012. He took a position as energy outreach program manager with Sustainable Hudson Valley, weaving a network of people interested in sustainability while publicizing the Solarize Hudson Valley program at fairs and other public events throughout the region. Among these kindred spirits he found his first Repair Café volunteers, and before long these gatherings to mend “beloved-but-broken” items had spread to more than 30 communities in the Valley. The Café he organized in New Paltz was the first in New York State and only the fourth in the nation.
In recent years Wackman became a sought-after spokesman for the movement, giving presentations and workshops and webinars for such hosts as the Omega Institute, the New York and New Jersey Library Associations and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). He served on the board of Sustainable Hudson Valley and the City of Kingston Climate Smart Commission, and received an Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Champion Award for his work.
In October 2020, in collaboration with Elizabeth Knight, founder of the Warwick Repair Café, he published Repair Revolution: How Fixers Are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2020/11/19/new-book-repair-revolution-chronicles-repair-cafe-movement-in-hudson-valley-beyond), and was making regular radio and livestream appearances to promote the book right up until the week of his wholly unexpected demise.
At the memorial gathering, co-author Knight told how Wackman had “changed my life.” Organizers of other Repair Cafés praised his contributions as a mentor and his talents as a woodworker. His children Nathaniel and Lucy Wackman spoke, as did his brother-in-law John Oros, sister Anne Oros and nephew John Oros. According to Nathaniel (the father of Wackman’s two grandchildren, Nicholas and Zoe), “The man you knew is the man we all knew as well.” “This is exactly what he would have wanted,” said Lucy of the spontaneous outpouring of community support.
To honor his memory, “Call a friend you haven’t talked to in forever. Fix something broken. Listen to music – lots of it, different kinds,” Wackman’s partner Holly Shader urged the crowd. “Carry his spirit with you wherever you go.”
An initiative called the Ulster County Zero Waste Implementation Plan Working Group is now taking place, spearheaded by county legislators Manna Jo Greene, Laura Petit and Tracey Bartels, Amanda LaValle of Ulster County government, and Europa McGovern of the DEC. The plan includes a proposal to establish a “resource recovery park” that draws on models established in communities as near as Ithaca and as far away as Sweden.
At the memorial gathering, Greene proposed that the facility be named the John Wackman Resource Recovery Center, noting that he’d outlined his “vision” for such a place in a telephone conversation with her the morning before his death. She also announced that a crowdfunding campaign would soon be under way to create a paid position for someone to take over the work that Wackman had been doing on a volunteer basis. \“We will move this forward, and we will manifest it in his honor,” she promised the crowd. “The fixing and the kindness and the building of community will go on.”