WATERLOO – It was 2003 and Sherry Elliott was looking for someone to rollerblade with.
This was not the case with Michael Elliott, but he often roller-skated. So when he saw a message online that Sherry’s friend had posted about finding a skating partner, he replied – three full pages, about skating, about his life, interspersed with jokes.
“As soon as I read it I was like, ‘Oh gosh, this guy is amazing,'” Sherry said.
When he said he was a musician, Sherry thought of the rock and roll lifestyle of partying, drug use and feminization. But it wasn’t Michael. He enjoyed playing acoustic guitar with friends, and he took her to karaoke at Diamond Dave’s in College Square Mall, where her high tenor voice made him swoon.
“He was a ham. You couldn’t take him off the stage,” Sherry said. “I just heard his voice and loved it.”
That voice has now fallen silent, his loss already reverberating through the community of Cedar Valley musicians who respected and loved him.
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A musician’s musician
Friends who came to this week’s jam night at The Screaming Eagle remembered his bands like Rampage, Nasty Jack, The Wicked Andersons and Fireside, as well as the informal musical gatherings Sherry and Michael – married in 2004 – used to host home every week.
“He was known at least as much for his vocal quality as he was for his guitar prowess,” said Deja Blue drummer Kip Roelfsema, who picked up tips to give to the Elliotts during the band’s blues jam Wednesday night.
Michael played in a jazz fusion style, similar to the progressive rock of bands like Rush and Led Zeppelin — technical and challenging guitar work, as well as high-pitched vocals, which Michael could pull off well, Roelfsema said.
“He was really stoned at first, then he had a great falsetto too,” said Deja Blue lead singer Craig Bravender. “He could do these songs that I never could – I’d just have to sing them low, you know?”
His talents attracted young musicians who also wanted to challenge themselves musically, said Bryan Sink, who recalled Michael hosting such musicians onstage with him during Tuesday night jams at Sink’s former Limestone Lounge.
“Everyone wanted to sing with Michael,” Sink said. “The quality of his voice was so amazing, and he was a natural harmony singer, so he could add that harsh harmony.”
However, Sink will be remembered mostly for his support.
“He liked to go and listen to other people playing music,” he said. “If I was doing my first geezer show at Jameson, Mike was front row with Sherry. Always.”
“Sherry and Mike even came to Cedar Rapids to hear us once,” Deja Blue keyboardist Clark Kilgard said. “It was really nice.”
In addition to going to shows, Michael and Sherry hosted a weekly bonfire for musicians at their Waterloo home.
“We were getting there when the sun was just starting to set,” said Shelly Tatro, whose husband plays bass guitar. “All the guys were pulling out their instruments and jamming until one in the morning.”
Tatro remembers Michael as a big animal lover – although they didn’t have any pets, he nursed Tatro’s dog whenever he visited. He was also handy, a repairman with a garage full of parts who saved Tatro money when his security system’s hard drive died.
He installed “beautiful hardwood floors” after Sherry mentioned resenting it, and also redid their kitchen cabinets and bathroom. Tatro said he built a bar out of a large wooden spool for bonfires in the garden and trained his household’s personal assistant to tell jokes without warning.
“If someone said a keyword, Alexa would say something hilarious,” Tatro said. “He was famous for that.”
Far from the stereotypical musicians of her original fears, Sherry has come to love the community Michael has introduced her to over the nearly two decades.
When Michael came down with COVID-19, and when he had to be hospitalized, and finally put on a ventilator, they took advice from their shows and started a Go Fund Me. They even stopped with groceries and are hosting a benefit event on March 26 just for him.
“That was my main reason why I wanted this story to be told,” Sherry said. “What the community and the musicians do for the people – the kindness, the generosity – this community is damn amazing. It’s so huge, how amazing they are.
The sound of silence
But there’s another reason Sherry wants Michael’s story told.
Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged in Iowa, and nearly a year after most adults were able to get vaccinated, it’s easy to forget that people are still getting sick, are still hospitalized, still on a ventilator when their lungs can’t take it anymore.
It’s easy to forget that people are still dying – 457 in Black Hawk County alone since the pandemic began.
The highest number of deaths occurred in November and December 2020, with 147 deaths in those two months alone, according to the Black Hawk County Public Health Department. But while deaths fell last year after vaccines became widely available, they rose again in December 2021 and January this year, averaging 29 per month – hitting those who didn’t have the hardest yet received the vaccine.
Sherry said she and Michael were careful — always washing and sanitizing everything, socializing in a small group of the same people, dividing up their bonfire seats. But when vaccines became available, Michael balked, fearing it had been developed too quickly, just like Sherry.
After going to a family Christmas gathering in late December, Sherry fell ill with COVID-19, which they discovered through home testing. A day later, so did Michael. They stayed home, watching “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” and action movies.
Sherry recovered after four days. Michael felt worse and worse.
“He said, ‘I don’t feel good. It’s not going to go away,'” Sherry recalled.
On January 5, she took him to urgent care, which sent him to MercyOne Waterloo’s emergency department. They waited six hours for a bed to become available. Sherry left him with a kiss on the cheek, thinking he would recover soon.
“I never, ever in a million years thought this would happen,” she said.
Over the next two months, Michael turned sedation, paralysis and a ventilator on and off, his lungs recovering only to be attacked by infection again, Sherry said. On Wednesday, Michael was critical. A few hours later he was gone.
Facing a terrible loss, Sherry said Thursday that she still wanted to tell Michael’s story. She said she asked for his permission, he gave it, and wanted people to hear Michael’s story – and maybe reconsider their own decision not to get the vaccine. COVID. He was also a vaper, she said, but maybe the vaccine would have lessened the severity of his illness, got him out of the hospital faster, as vaccine studies show.
“That’s my main goal – if it could save anyone from this hell,” she said, noting that she would soon be vaccinated herself.
Michael was her skating buddy, her husband, her handyman, the one who made her laugh and introduced her to a community full of music and love. He was “my hero,” Sherry said.
“He’s so talented – and he’s modest about it,” Sherry said. “I said, ‘Honey, you just don’t know how good you are.'”