Thank you, Mr. Haigis: How one Greenfield resident changed two young boys’ lives

  • Brothers Misha Collins, at left, and Sasha Collins, who are shown at ages 10 and 8, respectively, had their lives changed by Greenfield resident John Haigis Jr. Haigis provided the boys with meals they couldn’t afford otherwise, entertainment and simply someone to talk to. Contributed photo

  • Misha Collins, 10, and his younger brother Sasha Collins, 8, play with their dog Bear in 1984. Contributed photo

Published: 3/1/2019 2:02:23 PM

When I was 10 years old in 1984, my family was so financially strapped that my mother, my little brother Sasha and Bear, our black Labrador Retriever-Shepherd mix, lost our subsidized apartment on Pleasant Street in Greenfield.

After spending a couple of seasons in a tent in the woods north of town, we moved into an office space on the second floor of an old brick building on Federal Street. We had no shower, no kitchen and no windows, and we had to keep quiet after business hours because we weren’t supposed to be sleeping there.

On the plus side, rent was only $75 a month and I loved that we were right upstairs from the New Inkwell News, where I could buy Tootsie Rolls for a penny. I think we were getting by on $300 per month, plus food stamps.

We had moved often, and had just settled in Greenfield when I was 9. My brother and I switched schools yearly, so my natural awkwardness was compounded by always being the new kid. If you’ve ever seen the movie “About a Boy,” I was the boy — dressing wrong, singing too loudly, trying to win acceptance in all the wrong ways.

But to help support my family, I got a job delivering newspapers for the Greenfield Recorder. Every afternoon, I’d deliver papers to about 40 houses on High Street and every Saturday, I’d collect cash from my customers. Of the $1.25 I collected, the Recorder got a dollar and I kept 25 cents, plus any tips.

One Saturday, when my little brother was tagging along on my route, we stopped to knock on the door of a large, well-kept, yellow Victorian, because the owner had forgotten his payment envelope. I remember how much I dreaded asking the forgetful grownups for money — but if they didn’t pay, it came out of my pocket, so I mustered my courage and rapped on the door.

An overweight man in his late 60s answered.

“I’m Mr. Haigis,” he told us. “What are your names?”

“Sasha and Misha,” we replied. He asked if we were Russian. I said that we weren’t sure, though we knew our mother liked Russia.

He said, “Well, that’s an important thing to know, where you came from. You should ask your parents.”

I informed him that our mother was English and Irish — I knew that from St. Patrick’s Day — “so if we are Russian, it’s from my dad. He lives in Boston.”

The old man stood there staring at us, contemplating something profound. Finally he said, “You boys want to come in for a soda?” Of course we did.

So he sat us on elegant upholstered chairs with “Masterpiece Theatre” on the television, and brought us Tab colas and saltines.

Over the next couple of years, we spent countless afternoons in John Haigis Jr.’s garage. He taught us the Cyrillic alphabet, Chinese characters, how to build electrical circuits, how to whittle balsa wood and how radio towers worked. He owned Greenfield’s FM radio station, WHAI, was a veteran of World War II and his father had been editor and publisher of the Greenfield Recorder.

All summer long, Mr. Haigis spent his time with us. He took us out to restaurants like Friendly’s that our family could never afford to splurge on and buy us Fribbles. He’d spin stories for us about his own childhood in Greenfield, or talk to us about his diabetes. We’d watch “Nova” with him on PBS. He also drove us out to the municipal airport to see the planes.

He made us feel like little princes — important and loved.

In 1988, Sasha and I stopped by to drop off Christmas presents for Mr. Haigis. Once again standing on the porch of that yellow Victorian, we knocked on the door. His wife answered.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “John passed away. You didn’t know?”

Then she cried in her doorway. And we cried back.

I hope he knew what he meant to us. One Saturday, he saw two little boys on welfare, far from their father, standing on his porch, and he opened his door and changed our lives. I know it’s late, but thank you, Mr. Haigis.

Misha Collins grew up in Franklin County, living in Greenfield and the surrounding hilltowns. He is now an activist and actor who stars in “Supernatural,” the longest running American science fiction television show in history. He lives in Washington state with his wife and two children.




Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906

 

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