For a year after his son died, Alex Hoffmann wore the Buddhist prayer beads that were on the 22-year-old’s wrist when heroin took him.
When the string of orange beads became too fragile, Alex placed them in a cloth bag that he carries in his pocket.
“He’s with me every day,” Alex said.
Shay Hoffmann could not have imagined the profound changes his addiction and death would have on his father’s life.
Alex will tell you he lost nearly everything. His 30-year banking career. His family’s east side Milwaukee home. His financial security in a bankruptcy. His health. His marriage. Even his freedom after he was busted four times for driving after trying to drown the pain with alcohol.
“I folded. I admit it. It was too much to carry. I’m the dad and I’m supposed to figure it all out and save my son. And I didn’t.”
Alex hit bottom, and then he rebounded with tireless passion to heal his soul, to share the message of addiction with anyone who would listen, and to honor his son’s memory by pushing for effective drug laws.
Perhaps most surprising of all, he began running a frozen yogurt shop and giving away the profits to deserving groups and causes.
“The issue was you either crawl into a hole, or you do something about it,” said the 64-year-old who lives in Menomonee Falls.
Shay, who was born Christopher James Shabart Hoffmann, was a “charismatic, witty, big-hearted soul” who loved sports, snowboarding, art and music, his death notice says.
But during his three years at Marquette University High School, he began using narcotic pain pills and heroin and spiraled downward, despite attempts at rehab. He entered Auburn University, but lasted less than a year there after showing signs of schizophrenia.
His parents, brother, sister, everyone tried to help him get and stay clean. It wasn’t enough. Shay died at a local hospital July 1, 2013, three days after he collapsed at his mother’s home on the east side.
“Intellectually, I know I did what I could. In my heart, I’ll feel guilty the rest of my life. It’s just a fact. You can’t really change it,” Alex said.
He was in jail at the time of Shay’s death and getting out during the day to work as a cook at a restaurant in Hubertus. A customer he met there, business executive Paul Armitage, offered to help Alex rebound. Armitage put up the money and in October 2013 the two men opened Yo Cool Frozen Yogurt at N78 W14579 Appleton Ave., Menomonee Falls.
Their desire was to make a positive difference, and the shop has hosted many events for schools, sports teams, churches, community groups and causes, passing along the profits to them. For Alex, the new job was a radical departure from his years as president of Universal Savings Bank in Milwaukee and head of the Wisconsin Mortgage Bankers Association.
He didn’t stop there. He contacted state Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), whose daughter, Cassie, also has struggled with drug addiction, and they became allies in pushing for legislation to save lives, allow for wider access to Narcan to counteract opiates, and offer limited criminal immunity for people who overdose and those who are with them.
“He doesn’t accept the political roadblocks that come along,” Nygren said. “He’s been a big driving force behind a lot of what we’ve done.”
Close friend Jim Morrison witnessed Alex’s dissolution and how he was able to quit drinking and pull up. “He’s an amazing guy to be taking the road he’s on now. It’s no longer the low road,” he said.
Michael Rogowski, a lawyer who has helped Alex, said, “Somehow in the face of all the pain and suffering Alex has had to endure, he has stepped up and stepped out as a truly inspirational individual.”
In 2014, Alex shared his story with the Assembly Criminal Justice Committee. He has met with Gov. Scott Walker, legislators and others. He has spoken at the Milwaukee Heroin Summit and at rehab centers and with other families struggling to understand addiction.
Now, he’s pushing for a state addiction czar, someone who would coordinate the complicated interplay between families, lawmakers, law enforcement, health care providers and others. He offered to do the job for $1 a year.
“There’s no question it’s helping me,” Alex said of his efforts to protect others from the devastation his family experienced. “As long as every day I can move forward and do something to help other people.”