I had something else planned for this space today and I don’t even remember what it was. As I write this Sunday afternoon, my planned day of productivity has been not much more than me staring at my computer screen.
Getting a message that starts with, “Ken, I have terrible news” first thing in the morning is never good.
But when my friend Vera Lynne informed me that our mutual friend Mike Van Jura had passed earlier in the morning due to a heart attack, I was stunned. “Jersey Mike”, as he was known wasn’t one of my closest friends, but he was a friend. A good friend, and a one-time contributor here on the blog. As far as I can tell, he was only 36. Way too young.
In terms of social media, Mike was an avid blogger, and early on was very active on Twitter and one of the folks who first got me interested in Twitter. In fact I went to my first tweet-up in Harrisburg at the Abbey Bar as the result of Mike’s invitation, long before anyone organized any similar events in my city of Lancaster. And social media was the means by which he and I kept in touch, in between the all too infrequent phone calls.
I first met Jersey back in 2007 when I started working for WXPN. A part of my job was working with local venues and concert promoters to set up events for the station. Mike was one of my best contacts, and as far as Harrisburg is concerned, he WAS the local music scene. I’ve worked with a lot of music promoters, and I have to say, they generally aren’t my kind of people. But Mike was the real deal. With his work at the Abbey Bar in Harrisburg, and through his company, Greenbelt Events, Mike brought all sorts of great bands to the region. And he was a great supporter of local music. No, let me rephrase that: he was a great supporter of GREAT local music. He could spot local bands with talent, and would give them a chance by booking them into the Abbey. I know I recommended a few local Lancaster bands to him, and they were thrilled when they got the chance to play his venue.
One of Mike’s musical coups was when he was able to bring one of his favorite bands to the Abbey back in 2007: the Hold Steady. He introduced the band to Central PA, and Central PA to the band, and he would bring them back to the area several times over the years, and was able to build a great relationship with the band.
You see, what set Mike apart from many of the other music industry folks in the Harrisburg area is that he cared about good music, and he cared about the musicians. He wanted them to succeed. He wasn’t merely using them to make a buck. He wasn’t sleazy. There were days it took all I had in me to go to a meeting with some of the local music promoters. Not Mike. I always looked forward to our meetings. He was never just working some kind of angle. He was legit. A “what you see is what you get” kinda guy. He never put on airs.
Mike was also a self-described rabble-rouser, a title that fit him well. Normally when someone calls themselves something like that, you can rest assured they are blowhards who are all about self-promotion. Not Mike. Oh, he had his opinions and was more than willing to share them, but always with one goal in mind: to make Harrisburg a better place.
As his nickname suggests, Mike was born and raised in New Jersey, and only found himself in Harrisburg as the result of a marriage. Interestingly enough, his time in Harrisburg lasted longer than that marriage. Kinda funny considering he originally hated the city.
But an odd thing happened along the way. Mike learned to love Harrisburg, a city that isn’t very easy to love. As an outsider, I’d say he probably loved Harrisburg more than most of that city’s natives.
In addition to his love of music, Mike wanted to see the city flourish, and nothing bothered him more than the ineptitude and greed of elected and appointed city officials. He was one of the biggest critics of former mayor Stephen Reed, and even more so of current Mayor Linda Thompson. That might not be saying much, as they both have had more than their fair share of critics, but Mike didn’t pile on as part of the mob. He wasn’t merely a voice of dissent. He truly wanted to make sense of things, and make the city a better place. So much so that this past Friday he had petitioned to take over a vacant seat on the Harrisburg City council. Now THAT would have been entertaining to watch.
When I posted news of Mike’s death on Facebook, the reaction was spontaneous. Shock. And more than one person gave voice to the thought that kept going around in my head: “This can’t be true. Please tell me this isn’t true”. And then Mike’s wall began to fill up with comments from his friends, many of whom were from bands that had worked with him, or had been given their first real club exposure by him.
In addition to his love of music and Harrisburg, Mike had one other love that transcended those: his two kids. Nothing could brighten up my Facebook feed more than a picture of Mike with his daughter Kaiya and infant son Lennon. Ask him about his kids, and his face would light up in a big smile, and boy did he have an infectious smile. Those kids were his life. I’m deeply saddened for their great loss.
Just three weeks ago as we in Central PA were spared most of the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, Mike was on Facebook thinking about his home state:
Gotta say – my heart is heavy for my homestate tonight. Seeing all of these posts from buds with no power, no water and all of the destruction. Trippy hearing about Bergen County and Hackensack and Moonachie on NPR as a reference point on how bad this storm was.
Hold it steady, New Jersey. Stay positive.
Mike, as several of our mutual friends mentioned to me, you truly were one of the good guys. You will be missed. I hope Harrisburg understands what it has lost. I pray that someone takes up the causes which you stood for, and keeps your work going. And I hope that someone steps forward and makes sure that your name is memorialized and permanently associated with the local music scene in some way.
Hold it steady, Harrisburg. Stay positive.