Shawn Hoeft of Bloomington believes her son Zac would have celebrated his 29th birthday this year had the unknown gunman who killed him been exposed to conflict resolution.
The bluegrass musician was on his way to an Ohio music festival three months ago to work with a food vendor when he was killed at a McDonald's drive-thru late at night in Columbus, Ohio.
Hoeft says no suspects have been identified, and police have little information about what happened.
Family and friends in Bloomington-Normal are hosting a Celebration of Life concert Saturday night at the Castle Theatre for the man known in music circles as Zac Straw. The show is also a fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal and Columbus, Ohio, outlets Hoeft says teaches conflict resolution.
Hoeft stopped by WGLT with daughters Rachel and Abigail to talk about Zac. Shawn said her music-loving son became a food vendor when he learned he could attend music festivals for free while working the food truck.
She said that love of music began early.
“He was the kid with the big black cowboy hat when he was about 3,” said Shawn. “And he would take those snap-beads … and those would be his stage lights. He had an old guitar that was actually my husband’s father’s guitar and play with that.”
He would play “musician” as other 3 and 4-year-olds would play dress-up. Shawn said her son would beg for guitar lessons, and they finally relented at age 10 when they took him to Guitar World and found a teacher that taught him some banjo.
“I can’t tell you where all the instruments went that he had. If someone wanted to learn, he would say, ‘Here’s my guitar, I’ll pick it up from you sometime,’” said Shawn, foreshadowing the giving nature that others including friends recently married in Missouri experienced. She said he volunteered with other friends to help the soon to be newlyweds get their property ready for the party.
“Zac never shared this with me, but Rich and Jodi (the married couple) said Zac built the stage everyone performed on. They had a lot of local friends and musicians come in and perform at their little mini-wedding reception festival. Once Zac got the stage built, he was the first to go on,” said Shawn.
As the youngest of the siblings, Abigail had a different relationship with her brother 12 years her senior than did her mother and sister sitting alongside her in the WGLT studio. She recalls Zac’s energetic nature as she shared how he would drop by the house unexpectedly.
“He’d say, ‘Let me update you on what I’ve been doing.’ So, I would sit on the couch and he would just pace around the kitchen telling me everywhere he’s been and everyone he’s seen and all his ‘best friends’ he met. It seemed like everywhere he went, he had a best friend. And if you knew someone, they were his best friend,” said Abigail, who then reiterated her mother’s comment about Zac’s giving nature.
“If you loved something of his, he gave it away. I remember in August of this year, he came home and had this floral bandana on, and I was like ‘that’s really pretty.’ He was like, ‘You know what, you can have it, but let me wash it first,'" said Abigail to the laughter of everyone.
“Then he just gave it to me.”
The Castle Theatre is the appropriate place for the Celebration of Life, as sister Rachel said she and her husband have watched many shows at the downtown venue, often with Zac.
“And sometimes we’d see him walking in without even ... as Abigail said ... without even knowing he was in town,” she laughed. “He’d always spend the last dollar in his pocket on a good concert ticket, and always had his favorite spot up close to the stage. You weren’t going to find him anywhere else except to go refill his drink.”
She also recalled Zac enthusiastically showing off his sister to friends while at The Castle.
“He would introduce me to his tens of hundreds of ‘best friends’ that were there.”
The Saturday concert is a celebration of life, and the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal and Columbus, Ohio, were chosen for a specific reason.
“We felt it was a good organization that supported youth development, learning things like conflict resolution and how to be a good citizen and all these things we could take for granted that we learn in different parts of our lives. Not everyone has that exposure to good role models,” said Rachel, who also mentioned Zac’s good friend Jennifer Cave works as a unit director at the Bloomington-Normal Boys & Girls Club.
“We can’t really change what happened, but we can hopefully make a positive influence both here in Bloomington and in Columbus where he was killed,” said Rachel.
Shawn believes the gun was the avenue for the killing, saying it could have been a knife, the car the killer was driving, or fist that would have accomplished the same thing. What’s different, she believes, is the way the person that shot Zac handled feeling threatened by him. She believes the conflict resolution and attributes for being a good citizen mentioned by Rachel and taught by the Boys & Girls Club could have resolved the conflict differently.
“I teach high school and a former student of mine that happened to be good friends with Zac works at the Boys & Girls Club in Bloomington. About two weeks after Zac was killed, I had a student get shot,” Shawn said followed by a long pause.
“The kids’ reaction to that was really eye-opening to me to a culture I’m not familiar with,” said Shawn.
“Well, they thought the kid deserved it was the one side of it. The kid that was shot was 15 years old and coming out of a car. It was just a cavalier attitude (from many of her students): ‘He was doing what he didn’t need to be doing,' whatever the street code was. To me that was ridiculous,” said Shawn, saying more tools need to be available to help young kids deal with conflict.
“I had a student even tell me with my own son that he wasn’t where he didn’t need to be,” said Shawn. “He was at McDonald's. If the message is that people don’t need to be at McDonald's, then we’re in trouble. We can’t change what happened to Zac, but maybe we can change the outcome for another family.”
Nearly 30 minutes into the conversation with Zac’s mother and two sisters, a portrait of a man who loved life and people emerged. He had tons of friends wherever he went, and he made it a point to bring those friends and others together.
“When people pass away, everyone is like, ‘They wouldn’t want you to sit around and be sad,'" said Abigail. “For Zac, I know it’s 100% true. He did love life and went after whatever he wanted and did what he loved. So, I feel that to sit around and be sad all the time like sometimes you want to be, I know Zac would still want me to love my life.”
In an email conversation, Jennifer Cave of the Boys & Girls Club echoed Abigail.
“Zac was the sunshine man. He had one of the biggest smiles and the kindest of hearts. I met Zac several years ago and we instantly connected. He lived such a groovy, adventurous life. His energy was contagious.”
Cody Diekhoff, aka Chicago Farmer, is one of the musical acts that will be on stage Saturday night. Others include The Henhouse Prowlers, The Unemployed Architects, and No Robot with guests the Legend of Levi Morgan. Diekhoff was also close to Zac.
“You don’t have to play on a big stage or under big lights to be a big part of the Midwest music scene. You just have to have a passion for it. No one had a bigger passion for music and especially outdoor music festivals than Zac Straw,” said Diekhoff via email.
“We were kindred spirits as we both felt the outdoor music festivals and gatherings were our home away from home. He had a big heart, was a big part of our Midwest musical family, and will be greatly missed.”
Doors for the Celebration of Life at the Castle Theatre open at 6 p.m. Saturday, with music starting at 7 p.m.
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