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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: A Newfane teacher, a Grammy nominee and many 'miracles'

Sean Kirst

Patrick Harrington, in so many ways, represents the miracle. Not quite a year ago, Eric Koch made a list of where the things he holds most dear should end up, once he was gone. Hanging in Koch’s Red House Music Shop in Newfane is a guitar in the fashion of legendary jazzman Howard Roberts, and Koch had no doubt.

This one had to be for Pat.

Patrick Harrington is a student, a friend, an inspiration. Almost 15 years ago, he came to Koch as a 13-year-old from Gasport hungry to learn guitar. His dream became a comet. Harrington, 27, is now a member of a band, Victor Wainwright and The Train, whose self-titled new album is nominated for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” at Sunday’s Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.

“Eric meant everything to me,” Harrington said last week, from a Caribbean “Blues Cruise” that will end in a mad scramble to reach the Grammys. Harrington, who offered gratitude toward his parents and a realm of friends and relatives, will wear a gold bow tie with his tuxedo and try to contemplate how all this possibly came to be.

Koch, he said, played a pivotal role that started in a tiny room in Newfane, walls crowded with guitars and photographs, where Koch hides toy dinosaurs to delight young students.

“There are no words for any of this,” said Koch’s wife, Theresa. “It won’t do it justice.”

Last May, a PET scan indicated Koch, 53, had a growing mass in his left lung. Molly Page, nurse manager for Dr. Patricia Danaher at MedWell Niagara Medicine – and a longtime friend whose son Matthew takes lessons from Koch – put it this way:

“Typically, when we see this, it ends up cancer.”

Pat Harrington, on guitar. (Family photo)

Last August, Koch had the upper lobe of his left lung removed at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is a longtime smoker, going back to his teenage years, and he had few doubts about what that surgery would show.

“We had his funeral planned,” Theresa said, “and the end of life stuff all planned out.”

Koch went through his precious things, especially his guitars, and he made a list of where each one should go. He had played music since he was a kid in Middleport, starting off with the upright bass, then guitar, always eager to pick up “anything that had some strings.”

As a young man, he began the nomadic life of a musician. He played in Colorado and worked in a casino in Montana and came home to Western New York, eventually joining the Nickel City Blues Band. He also opened a little shop that is now a Main Street institution in Newfane, where he has taught guitar to countless children and adults.

Harrington arrived at Koch’s door in 2005, a middle schooler who could not get the guitar off his mind, even as many of his friends were drawn toward sports. While their heroes might have been Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter, Harrington found his way to such guitar legends as B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf.

“I really believe what happened had everything to do with Eric,” Harrington said. “He knew I didn’t want to do anything but play guitar.”

What started as a lesson a week soon became a lifestyle. Harrington loved meeting the veteran musicians who would stop in to visit with Koch. Before long, Koch was trusting the kid to work behind the counter, and after a few years he allowed the young man to teach some lessons.

“He taught me how to be a good person,” Harrington said. Koch warned him of the dangers and temptations that could overwhelm a musical career, dangers he had witnessed at great cost. Harrington’s parents, Roy and Heidi, describe Koch as a powerful mentor.

“Eric had a huge impact on Pat’s life,” Heidi said, a kinship that only grew stronger when Harrington graduated from Royalton-Hartland High School to study at Niagara Community College, and then at SUNY Fredonia.

Pat Harrington and his first guitar teacher, Eric Koch. (Family photo)

A few days ago, Harrington explained by phone how Derek Trucks, one of his guitar heroes, showed him that music “is really about moving someone’s soul.” After college, Harrington met guitarist Damon Fowler through Robert “Freight Train” Parker of Buffalo, and Fowler listened as Harrington spoke of building a life in music.

He was 24 when Fowler sent an email and told him Wainwright needed a guitarist. The kid from Gasport gave it a shot. He earned the gig.

A miracle? To Koch, that is one of many. Since his teenage years he was a heavy drinker, an addiction that shattered his first marriage and repeatedly disrupted his life. For years, promises to quit soon fell apart. Five years ago, after being arrested on a felony DWI charge, he went on another bender and Theresa, who had given him countless chances, said:

That’s it. I've had enough. Don’t come home.

Koch bought a sleeping bag at Wal-Mart. He got drunk and walked to his shop. In anger and self-loathing, he took a frame from the wall and smashed it on the floor, then fell asleep amid the broken glass. He woke up the next morning, nauseous and empty, and something finally told him it was time.

He found his way to people who reinforced what he needed to do. He now has almost five years of sobriety, much of it spent "trying to help all the people I loved, and who I hurt." Theresa, in her joy, cannot say why she did not walk away, except that she sensed his decision was for real.

“Believing in God works,” she said. “If I hadn't believed in God before all this unfolded, how could I not now?”

She has no other explanation for what happened in Roswell, where she fully expected the doctors to tell her that Koch had a tumor that soon would take his life. Instead, the surgeon took Theresa into a little room, looked across the table and said, “We got it, and it doesn’t look like cancer.”

What they found in the lung, he told her, was benign.

Theresa, spent, wept uncontrollably.

Pat Harrington's note to his teacher, Eric Koch. (Image courtesy Eric Koch)

Koch does his best to take nothing for granted, a grandfather embracing the brightest days of his life. He was named Newfane's 2018 Small Business Person of the Year. He often posts images on Facebook of everyday moments with his family and Theresa, calling her "my love." As for the Howard guitar, it remains on the wall, not far from a handwritten letter.

It is from Pat Harrington, penned last summer, not long after Wainwright’s album came out. Written on lined paper, Harrington – whose band in March will visit Buffalo's Tralf Music Hall - thanked Koch for the “life lessons and music lessons,” and told him there is no way any of this happens without him.

“This is my first real, serious record I have been a part of,” Harrington wrote, “and I dedicate it to you.”

One more miracle, in blue ink on notebook paper.

“The very first thing I do every morning is thank my maker for giving me another shot at this,” Koch said. He fights against drifting into plans or dreams instead of simple appreciation for each moment, though he would not be human without this one dream for Sunday afternoon.

“Wouldn’t it be a hoot,” he wrote in a Facebook note, “if my boy won the Grammy?”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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