I’m always fascinated by the unofficial titles that follow some people’s names. So, when I heard about Andy Mackie, The Harmonica Man, my ears perked up and I knew there had to be a story. Harmonica Man became more than a title for Andy Mackie; it came “pert near” to becoming his name.
Andy Mackie is credited with having taught thousands of children to play musical instruments. It was his passion. And just wait until you hear how he accomplished that!
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Mr. Mackie was a Scottish born, retired horse trainer who believed in doing what he loved, even when it meant throwing caution to the wind. For years, Andy Mackie’s health was precarious. Metaphorically speaking, he had a big heart. Medically speaking, he had a really bad heart! Andy had undergone nine heart surgeries and was taking fifteen different medications.
The medicines all came with side effects. His life was being prolonged, but it wasn’t much of a life. One day, he said, “Enough is enough.” He decided to stop taking his medicines and live what he thought would be he final days to the fullest. That first month, Andy Mackie took the $600 he would have spent on heart medication and invested in three hundred harmonicas! In what he fully expected it to be his final, grand gesture, he gave the harmonicas to schoolchildren, provided them with lessons and waited to die.
When he didn’t die, he decided to do the same thing the following month. Again, he didn’t die. So, Andy Mackie continued buying harmonicas, giving them to schoolchildren and providing lessons, and he forgot about dying. He got on with the business of living.
Pied Piper of Washington State
Andy Mackie traveled from school to school handing out harmonicas and teaching kids to play them. Andy wasn’t a wealthy man and he didn’t live in the lap of luxury. For years, Andy Mackie lived in a camper in Washington State’s Jefferson County. To paraphrase financial guru, Dave Ramsey, Andy Mackie lived like no one else so he could LIVE like no one else. And live he did!
He instructed students in five school districts in harmonica. In an effort to prevent older students from losing interest, he also branched out and taught them how to make strum sticks and guitars. For years, he funded his program by using the money he would have otherwise used on heart medication and with money he designated from his monthly Social Security Check. His goal was to bring music to every child on the North Olympic Peninsula and he understood that would mean personal sacrifice. He also understood that personal sacrifice wouldn’t be enough.
Not Just Blowing Hot Air
In 1996, The Andy Mackie Music Foundation was established in East Jefferson County. It ‘s a non-profit institution designed to help students obtain musical instruments and receive lessons. He raised money through his foundation to reach more kids than he could have with his limited financial resources. Knowing that even the Harmonica Man couldn’t cheat death forever, Andy Mackie worked to ensure that his dream would live on long after he was gone.
Andy Mackie’s vision was conveyed so clearly in his own words. In 2003, Mackie told Peninsula Daily News columnist, Jennifer Jackson, “In a national survey, the number one thing kids said kept them out of trouble was music.” He was also quoted as saying, “What it takes to be good at music—the dedication, the discipline—carries over to any job.”
Andy Mackie wasn’t all talk. He believed that music makes a difference in people’s lives and he backed up his beliefs with action. In 2005, he led 1,706 harmonica players in the simultaneous playing of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” to set a Guinness World Record. Now, you might be thinking that there was nothing life changing about a mob of harmonica players playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but I would beg to differ. Andy Mackie understood about the importance of community, and his community came to understand the importance of Andy Mackie. The man with the “bad heart” was one of Jefferson County’s five Heart of Service Award recipients, in 2006. That heart of his got a lot of attention.
In 2009, Andy Mackie’s fame grew when he was a feature story on CBS Evening News. It was the kind of story that made you need to pull out a hankie. And, it was the kind of story that made you resolve to be a better person. At that time, Andy had been using his medicine money to buy harmonicas for eleven years. He had given out 13,000 harmonicas!
The Heart of the Matter
In 2010, Andy Mackie left his little corner of the Northwest and moved to Michigan to be near family. It was time for the man who cared so much about others to let his family take care of him. But, he didn’t forget about the people of Jefferson County. He made his final visit in May 2011. He met old friends and likely made a few new ones. While there, he also performed a few times. What else could you expect from The Harmonica Man?
Andy Mackie had his final heart attack in November of 2011. No, he couldn’t cheat death forever. But, more important, he didn’t cheat life. He lived his life on his own terms and he left the world a better place.
The final tally is that Andy Mackie gave out more than 20,000 harmonicas and 5,500 music sticks. And, his legacy lives on. It lives on in “his kids” who play their instruments in community parades—just like Andy taught them. It lives on in the kids he taught, who are now adults making their own mark on the world. And, of course, his legacy lives on through The Andy Mackie Music Foundation. I don’t care what modern medicine told us; metaphorically speaking, there was nothing wrong with Andy Mackie’s heart—nothing at all.
Watch this wonderful CBS interview with Andy Mackie!
Happy Trails, y’all!