Remembering Mat Coerper’s passion and precision

‘Mat, you freaky weirdo, I’ll miss you...’ wrote one friend in messages at the celebration of life at Rockford Grange, attended by about 200 people.

Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea
‘Mat, you freaky weirdo, I’ll miss you...’ wrote one friend in messages at the celebration of life at Rockford Grange, attended by about 200 people.



Adam Coerper’s tribute to his brother

My name is Adam Coerper and I’m Mat’s brother — also his childhood partner in crime. Today, I have the honor and privilege in paying tribute to my big brother, who was extraordinary in so many ways ... read the rest at http://www.hoodri...

Passion and precision are two words that help to describe the expansive life of Mathew Coerper, who died Dec. 22 at age 32.

“Even his hugs were legendary. His embrace left you feeling like a million bucks,” said his brother, Adam.

Mat is survived his parents, Walt and Jodi, and three brothers, Adam, 29, Christian, 26, and Connor, 19; his niece, Ellaline, and soon-expected nephew, Sutter.

Mat was born in The Dalles, and graduated from Hood River Valley High School in 2005. He moved to Denver for a year, then back to Oregon and enrolled at Lane Community college, starting work at Body Jewelry Co. in Eugene in March 2007, and moving to Tempe, Ariz., to work for HTC Piercing from May 2008 to April 2015, when he moved back to Hood River. In in the fall of 2015, he began working for Sushi Okalani.

He moved to White Salmon in November 2016, and lived there until he died on Dec. 22, of an accident involving one of his own sushi knives.

”It’s going to be hard. It’s going to really, really hard,” said his father, Walt.

These are the details of one man’s life: Similar to many others’ but unique in its own way.

Mat died young, and tragically, after focusing intently on two career choices. Mat’s work and adventures took him as far as Denver and Tempe, while remaining emotionally close to his family.

Family remembers how devoted he was to his brothers, and how meticulous he was as an elementary kid, with his colored pencils and art, as an adolescent with his Tae Kwon Do (he gained black belt by high school) and with multiple AP-level high school classes.

“It was a fun household, a lot of playing around,” Adam said. The Coerper family moved to Parkdale in 1996.

“It’s said that every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details on how he lived that distinguish one man from another,” Adam said.

Walt recalled how Mat would try to explain how “he enjoyed being not just being a sushi chef, but an artist.

“Whether it was knives or pencils, he wanted to be the best.”

“It is in the details that Mat lived his life,” Adam said. “He was thorough and deliberate in everything he did. Nothing was done half-ass. If he was going to do something, it was well-thought out and measured,” Adam said.

Adam, 29, read these words at Mat’s memorial on Dec. 30 at Anderson’s Tribute Center. Rockford Grange filled later that same afternoon with friends and family, some coming from Arizona and Colorado, gathering around a long table of food, and photos of Mat by his friend, Hood River photographer Richard Hallman. Boss Justin Williams placed a tribute bottle of sake on the grange stage next to a photo of a bearded, beaming Mat Coerper.

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Artist in every level of his life, Mat Coerper brought deep passion to life, and not just as a chef at Sushi Okalani.

Realizing artistry

“A big empty hole to fill.” Williams used those words, among others, to express what he and many others feel with Mat gone. Three years ago, Williams hired Mat as a chef at Sushi Okalani, and watched him become a force in camaraderie and matters culinary.

“I’ve trained a lot of people over the years, but he was definitely the most passionate,” said Williams, who, with Amy C.K. Heil, opened Sushi Okalani 13 years ago.

“He was excellent. Passionate,” Heil said. “That’s what it takes to make sushi. And so creative.

“Mat was controversial. There were two crews, one three nights on and three nights off,” she said. “They fought with each other — disagreed — but that made the food better, the environment, made it that much more enticing.”

“The endless passion this guy showed was a rare thing. I hope everyone can find the work to live their passion, like he did,” Williams said.

Mat took his body-piercing work “very seriously, too,” he said. “It’s a lot of precision and detail, one of those jobs where you can put as much passion in as you choose to.” Piercing started as an apprenticeship, and he learned on the job.

“I think it was something he really enjoyed. He developed some very strong friendships in Arizona, and he enjoyed the camaraderie. I think he got tired of the heat, though. He wanted to try the Northwest back out.”

Williams said, “He was very passionate about the food. He’d come in because his friend Alex was working here, and he enjoyed the food and the artistry and realized, ‘I can do this.’

“You can put as much work and passion into it, it’s kind of boundless, and since he had that drive, he was the best student I ever had,” Williams said.

“He was fastidious and detail-oriented, down to the minute details, and thriving off the energy when he gives it to someone,” Williams said. “That’s the thing about being a sushi chef. You get to hand over what you make, and it might be something unusual they have never had before, and he would be right there and hand the plate over and get that immediate reaction.”

This is where the way Mat Coerper died affects his loved ones, including co-workers, in ways that are potently painful in their own way, for they carry a tragic irony.

Williams called it the “most freakish-accident ever.”

Sushi knives are razor-sharp and Mat, like many chefs do, took his blades home nights after work and sharpened them.

“It touches us a lot harder … the tools of his trade, you have to look down and pick that up every time,” Williams said. “You’re always conscious of safety and conscious of the blade and where it is, but to know it can happen definitely affects chefs a lot more to know that.”

Sense of mortality

“That aspect of being a chef and working with knives, reminds us of our mortality and the dangers, and that what we do has consequences,” Williams said.

Williams said that on Dec. 22, Mat carried his knives from his car to the steps of his apartment, all but one encased in safety sheaths, and one inexplicably left wrapped in a towel. Williams and Walt Coerper described what happened next:

Carrying the knives against his upper torso, Mat walked in front of the car, where there was a hose and metal box on the ground. He tripped and fell, the blade causing a mortal wound. Mat apparently was able to get up and sit on the steps, where a roommate found him later. Adam said his brother passed “very quickly.”

Williams said that there was an autopsy “because they weren’t sure what had happened at first.

“We know, ‘this is what happened, no one hurt him.’ But we always knew it was an accident, because there is no one who would ever want to hurt Mathew Coerper.”

Williams believes that in light of Mat’s passion as a chef and caring for other people, he would want people to know about what happened to him, and learn from it.

“To not take anything for granted,” Williams said. “The people around you, the actions you hold have consequences to the people around you. The respect for the equipment, and the respect for the knife is a big part of learning to be a chef and safety factors that are part of training can’t be taken for granted.

“It was one I bought him,” he said of the knife. “When my guys started, they have house knives, beaters, and when they graduate to a certain point, I give them a knife. ‘This won’t be your only knife, but this is your first knife.’ So it’s pretty hard to take. The police showed me the photo (of the knife that killed Mat) and asked me to identify it, and I said, ‘That’s his.’

“We’ll have a lot stricter protocol about carrying and taking them out of the restaurant, because there is a big difference between having it on the counter at work and having it in your car and taking it or carrying it across the parking lot, even. People will carry them out, but there will be a lot of stricter (rules on) bags, sheathes, knife rules,” Williams said.

Sushi Okalani employes 18 people, including front of house. Williams said staff is taking it “pretty rough.”

“I was the one who called most of them. The night it happened, we were in service and had to pull people aside and explain, and the next night had to call the rest of them. That was rough to go through my own sadness, and then to have to reload that every time to tell someone … I don’t know how people who do that for a living can do that, people who are constantly put in that situation. It was pretty rough. We have some who are taking it worse than others, some who wanted to get right back to work, ‘we need to do what we need to do.’ It’s a tough balance. Everyone reacts differently and has his own needs.”

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Mat Coerper

‘Big part of his life’

Walt said, “It’s kind of sad because I never went into Sushi Okalani to see him do that, never able to share that part of him, ever though he shared it, and it was a big part of his life.”

Walt said, “He kept telling me ‘Dad, there’s more to sushi than raw fish.’ I never got a chance to go down and see that. When he’d come home, he would make meals for us, it was a four to six hour process, not just ‘let me throw some steak on the barbie.’ He’d pick out the meat and he wanted it exactly the way we thought we’d like it, and that’s how he did it with sushi,” Walt said. He cited Richard Hallman’s visits to Sushi Okalani.

“He ordered (from the menu) at first, but after awhile, it was ‘Mat, you make something for me. What can you come up with?’ I had never met Richard, but it was so great to hear that.”

Walt said Mat was in a serious vehicle accident a few weeks before he died, which led “to a good talk, and what he wanted from life.” Part of the message was to spend time with his brother. He is grateful that Mat and Connor had a solid week of companionship in December in Arizona. Walt and Jodi bought Connor a car and Mat drove it down to Mesa-Tempe, where Connor is attending Mesa Community College and playing baseball.

“Connor liked it because Mat knew everything, he knew all the places to go, all the best places to eat. They had a really good time,” Walt said.

“When he had that accident, it could have been his time, but God said, ‘No, no, you gotta go down there with your brother.’”

Pride in everything

“It’s hard to encompass. I want him to be remembered for the great person he was, a great friend, and as one of four brothers, a leader of the family,” Adam said.

But Adam concurred that the term “black sheep of the family” also fit Mat.

“He was a little different, my brothers and I were a bit more clean cut, but Mat was a little more willing to experiment, and really figure things out for himself,” he recalled:

“When he went down to Arizona, the tattoos on his knuckles, and piercings started popping up. There was a little ‘That’s Mat,’ and ‘What’s getting all those piercings for?’ but he never changed during those years. He was still the same Mat: Rough exterior, but he was still that sweet, inquisitive guy.”

Adam averred that Mat “was argumentative sometimes and questioning everything.

“If you told him it should be a certain way, he would say, ‘I don’t think so,’ until he figured it out for himself. He was argumentative, but in a good way. He never assumed something was correct until he could find out for himself.

“It served him well, being inquisitive with teachers. Between us, I’d act like I knew something and he’d be like ‘Do you really know that?’ He challenged me. It’s made me question more and dig more for answers. He was AP everything, he had great GPA so he made strive. I was more interested in athletics but he made me want to do well in school.”

Adam said, “Mat took pride in everything he did. From the way he dressed all to the way to how he signed his name. He operated with purpose and intent. Mat lived in the moment and he liked the unexpected. He marched contentedly and unapologetically to his own drum.

“His uncanny optimism is what made each day an adventure. He was always a glass-half-full kind of guy who would find positivity even in the most unfavorable circumstances.”



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