Eulogy for Mike Donze

Mike Donze
Mike Donze

Editor’s note: The following is the text of the eulogy given at Honquest Family Funeral Home with Crematory, Mulford Chapel on Monday, May 12, 2014.

By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher

Mike Donze, 62, died peacefully at home Thursday, May 8, 2014. Local singer, songwriter, musician and photographer in Rockford, Ill., and Fernandina Beach, Fla. He graduated from Rockford East High School and attended Columbia College Chicago and SIU Carbondale. He and his brother, Parry, owned and operated Saturn Studio in downtown Rockford from 1983 to 2002, as well as performing together in various bands, which were: Sugar Foot; Alto Pass; Pee Wee and the Wristers, Various Bootlegs; Hillworms, CD My Town 1994; Golden Rocket Band; Blue Gills, CD Here I Am 2009; Solo CD Sunglasses 2012; Solo CD Loose Ends originals compilation 2013.

Survived by his brother, Parry (Jennifer Sullivan) Donze, Spring Hill, Fla.; son, Sam Donze, Rockford, Ill.; stepson Clay (Isabel) Corrigan, Rockford, Ill.; stepdaughter, Cassie (Chad) Brecunier, Chicago; special friend, companion, and caregiver April Frost; and a large extended family of much-loved cousins and friends. April wishes to give special thanks to all of her co-workers at her employer, Cain & Co., and particularly Amy Anderson. All of the family wishes to thank all the staff at Heartland Hospice and SwedishAmerican for their excellent care of Mike. She also wants to really thank Dan Hallin and Pat “Packy” Pierce.

Memorial service Monday, May 12, 2014, in Honquest Family Funeral Home with Crematory, Mulford Chapel, 4311 N. Mulford Road, Loves Park, Ill. In lieu of flowers, donations to SwedishAmerican Foundation (Mike Donze Memorial Music Fund on notation line). To share a memory or express condolences, visit

Rockford should be truly proud of Mike and Parry for attaining the following Rockford Area Music Industry awards: First 1992 RAMIs Blues Band Pee Wee and the Wristers; 1993, 1994, 1995 Acoustic Rock – The Hillworms; 1996 RAMIs Album My Town – The Hillworms; 1996 RAMIs Song – “American Dream” Mike Donze; 1998 RAMIs Acoustic Rock – Catfish John, the Hillworms (tie); 1999 RAMIs Acoustic Rock – The Hillworms; 2000 RAMIs Hall of Fame Inductees – The Hillworms;


I’ll be the first to speak about Mike Donze because he was brave enough to ask me to do so. I also want you to know he planned this entire event; that’s very rare and typical of Mike. Things have to be just right, you know.

After I give my best to this great honor, please, everyone, feel free to offer your memories and sentiments about this unusual, creative, and talented man who actually cared and acted accordingly. To quote Mike, “Ask them if they have anything to add.” And I’m sure you do.

I must say, for all of my diarrhea of the keyboard, and my talent for incessant babbling, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. Can you imagine, getting ready for work on a Monday morning and getting a phone call from Mike, and him saying, “Frankie, I want you to write my eulogy.”?

I knew he had prostate cancer, he had gone into remission, and it had come back, but I didn’t really know what the hell to say. I think I smartassed something about Mark Twain saying “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, and I think the same is true for you”, and embarrassing on trying to be funny with: “Hell, you’re not dead yet, best as I can tell.”

Obviously, again, I didn’t know what to say, and he just laid it out, “Frank, I’ve got prostate cancer and it’s spread, and I’m about to start the Hospice process. Come on over and talk to me; I think you can do a good job on my eulogy.”

So I stumbled for my brain in an appointment book and felt like Dr. Death when I said, “Well, I can make it after the paper’s Tuesday deadline, late, or come on over on this Wednesday, April 9 about 6 or 7?”

That’s fine; see you then,” Mike said, and we hung up.

I wandered into the production room at work, and said, “An old friend just called me; he’s dying and wants me to give his eulogy.”

Either Brandon Reid, our senior assistant editor, or Jeff Helberg, our production manager, said, “That’s about the highest honor you can get.”

Indeed, this is, and the night I went over to the house of April Frost who has been the love of Mike’s life for the last eight years, I was very uneasy about my ability to do justice to this honor.

So I just fell back on what I know, and started interviewing Mike, like he was a news story, a feature story.

Before I relate the notes of that interview, let me give you some background of what I know of Mike and his brother Parry because they are inseparable for much of my memory.

However, I must clearly state I have a good memory; it’s just short. So short, it could make a gnat jealous,

In my mind, I began to review what I have in my library and records at home; what we had in the archives in the paper, and what I could swing out of the RAMIs records, with the help of Cindy Mauscke.

When Saturn Studios opened in 1993, I had just returned from Seattle and worked at the Clock Tower’s Quark and Bellamy’s. Then I became the “Bar Manager” at the Old Rock River Cafe, the bar mall at State and Madison streets with a restaurant and seven bars including the original Irish Rose.

That’s where I met the Donze brothers. Parry and Mike were attached at the hip, at the heart and at the noggin.

They lived in a magical land called Saturn, a reworked, in a very mod, Jack Pine-style storefront at 907 E. State St. Now home to Graham-Ginestra. By the way, the building’s cool storefront now needs paint.

As I said for an article in our June 15, 2002 issue “Mike Donze has been the business brains of Saturn Studios ever since its inception. He deals with people in a way that would make customer service gurus envious. He has excellent aesthetic taste and really knows how to run a business. As to his aesthetic ability, his songwriting ability coupled with Parry’s talent produced Rockford’s only national chart maker besides Cheap Trick’s recordings. They have done tremendous things for the River District, leading by example in restoring their storefront and creating one of the best lofts in Rockford.”

Pete Riggs did the majority of the design and construction of the loft with its unusual angular kitchen and bar, and Jim Julin created Parry’s bed that hung from the ceiling.

The building had three stories with 14-foot ceilings on the first and third, and at least 20-foot ceilings on the second floor.

Artisan carpenter Jack Pine redid the storefront and front office into the coolest modern arts and crafts style that was “friendly but dynamic” as Parry put it. The molding was striking with an abrupt yet streamlined look. The front office was the lair of Ruthie, their mom, and occasionally, Ton their dad, would stop in and offer one of his famous sayings, “You know if the world was all dogs, the world would be a pretty nice place.” Mike would lean in the doorway and grin. Ruth was a bookkeeper who had worked for many accounting firms and also a legal secretary. She used to tell great stories at Billy and Earl’s, our local music showroom owned by Chuckie Cheese and Mary Mary Stiles. One of her favorite phrases was “I’ll have another scotch.” She was always so nice to me, and would say, “Be a good friend to my boys.”

Mike’s lair was in the back with the enlarger, darkroom, and screenprinter. Parry’s office was in the middle of the first floor, and the place was snowstorm stacks of paper, every kind of etching, drawing, writing and coloring devices. But Mike had the most territory in the back with storage of many screen frames, the multi-station, automatic screen printer–the gauntlet-had eight stations. It was huge. But the enlarger was larger. What we do with a few mouse clicks today (even if the “mices” squeal), took a huge apparatus for the same task. Mike was the mystery keeper of that process. He loved to hang out in his darkroom with its red lights and an illuminated “On The Air” sign, which meant “Stay the four-letter word out of the dark room” until the sign is off.

The second floor was the social floor and Parry’s apartment as noted. After-hour parties from the Gypsy Booth DB2 at the Rock River Cafe would result in couch campouts for many. I remember waking up on one of the four or five couches strewn about the expansive loft in my tuxedo after the RAMIs more than once.

Mike and Parry were famous for slapping cream pies into people’s faces if was their birthday. They would even go on “Pie Hits,” like going over to Save-A-Lot, getting a frozen cream pie, letting it defrost just enough, and driving over to a birthday victim they were informed was imbibing at Harper’s Weekly. Mike drove the getaway car with the pie on the seat between him and Parry. They’d pull up to the curb; Parry’d get out and leave the door open; he’d run in; slap the pie in the supposed birthday boy’s face and dash out to the waiting car, and Mike would peel away from the curb. When Parry related this to me, he added, “And, oh yes, it was the wrong guy. Somebody told me the wrong guy, and he was wiping out his eye sockets, going “Why the pie?”

Mike was always the straight man for the jokester-types. Take Dan Voll, for instance. Mike loved playing with him because you might come in and come the first break between songs, Dan would holler into the microphone: “Betsy Kaske is in the House!” or “Robin Leifheit is in the house!” And Betsy or Robin would be all embarrassed, and just like driving the getaway car, Mike would sit there, nod and laugh and step on the gas of his guitar.

Mike always thought he was smarter than the rest of us and most the time he was.

He had an air of quiet authority about him. He was as confident and open on stage as he was person-to-person. He could be a bit crabby at times, and a bit of a prima donna; hell, I don’t know about you, but I can really identify with that.

When he took you into his confidence, you knew you were his friend, and he really loved art, his best friend. He loved art just as a concept–a grand concept, the grandest concept of all. And music was his art; his musical vision was aimed at the horizon that took him to Florida and home again to his family and us.

So when Mike Donze called, I answered.

These are my notes from April 9, 2014.

April opened the door, and I passed through the front room, which was littered with CDs, a guitar and notebooks.

He was in the TV room, slumped down on the couch, his legs up on a sectional wearing a stocking his head. He was very thin and matter of fact. I could see his son Sam or Clay (I can’t tell them apart) and Alice preparing dinner in the kitchen.

We shook hands, and I sat down. I got out my brain in a book to take these notes:

Mike Donze began: We go way back. You know who I am: my music, business, the history of downtown, canoeing, silk-screening, photography, my mother Ruthie and Billy and Earls. Tell them about the bands, Pee Wee and the Wristers, Hillworms. Tell them about that and ask if they have anything to add, and afterwards they should mingle and talk.

Looking back, I see I turned out to be the songwriter, and my brother turned out to be the fabulous guitar player. We were inseparable — in business and artistically, until we sold the business (Saturn Studios), and we went in separate ways down in Florida for the first time. Then I came back to Rockford.

I began learning from Dan Voll. Dan Voll changed my style musically, and we had a good run at it in a different, unusual direction–it changed my style completely.

We started here, and then we went to Florida; it was tremendous musical growth. I learned a lot of different rhythms, and I learned I sucked trying to play “Mack the Knife.” It was a new music, songs like that instead of my country style.

Pistol Pete, Arik Jenkins, my brother, Major Hamberlin, and other guys were great friends in music.

Speaking of great, I remember the 1996 RAMIs that were at the Verdi Club, and Cheap Trick was secretly slated to play. They wanted to leave early and asked if we’d mind if they played first. We said OK. They were fine; hell, they’re Cheap Trick, but they were a little rushed. Then we came out and really leaned into it, and many people told us we smoked them. HA! Cheap Trick opened for us, and I think we played better! I love that memory.

Parry and I had some great musical moments, especially our last night in Fernandina Beach at the Rusty Pelican.

With the music, I’ve been a family man and a business man, but it’s Dan Voll who is the musician. I lived downtown and around, but Dan’s been a musician all of his life and it shows. He took me under his wing. He wanted me to be more of a singer.

I want people to know I had a grip on life as an artist — how to write a song joyful, painful a mixed bag of emotion. Artists are alway asking questions, inquiring, and trying to figure out the meaning of life. That’s what the great artists are.

In Florida, after a few years, the roof caved in. Every man should get a prostate test. I went into remission and didn’t pay attention.

My CD sales are going to Cancer Society.

That’s the end of my notes from April 9, 2014.

Before we get all too serious here, we have to remember Mike had a great sense of humor, a very subtle one at that.

On the website, Mike posted his photography, gave his age as 104, and described his work as: “full-time human.”

He listed his interests as: “Tom Petty, John Hiatt and Lucinda Williams are his favorite bands. Coffee is one of his favorite foods.”

He posted this when he lived in Nashville, and palled around with Mike Tarrolly. He found the town was not what he thought, and he returned to Rockford to be with his son, Sam.

Go to and you can see some of his camera work, my favorite of the kid writing on the wall by the Marlboro sign in a store door, and him and Parry as kids. One of his most well-known photos is of the late artist and friend Jim Julin, where “Modern Jim,” as Parry calls him, is sitting with his arms folded and one of his staghorn shields is in the background.

YouTube offers his ukulele work with Julie Ferreira on his original song, “Secret of the Sea.” You can also see him with Dan Voll on YouTube, playing “The Last Lonely Dream for the Cowboy”, “Movin’ on Table 13”, and my favorite, “Gas Station Roses.”

Of course, check out his Facebook page.

When you try to remember someone, it’s like a net full of mixed-up fishes of every kind. You look at them one by one. You see the kind, the size, the colors, the gasping for waters, pause and think with the mental movie projector running, and it swims off. Then you pick up another one, and decisions and another time comes back again until the memory net is empty. Yet, later, others fin in from the past.

Going back to why Mike’s friends and family called him “Gil” is a laugh. In his high school Spanish class, he was informed that Michael is Miguel in Spanish. His buddies “translated” that to Gil or Gilbert. I’ve always called him Gilnetter because in many ways, like many artists, he confidently seemed like a fish out of water or like he was constantly fishing for something. I think he finally landed the big one, himself. April tells me he was smiling when he left our net.

Parry asked me to impart the following about his brother: We fought like brothers and we played like brothers. We had no shortage of contention being in business for 20-plus years. Our friend, Dan Voll, coined two bites he still uses, “Saturn” … imitating the way Mike answered the phone at the shop, and “Parrr!” imitating the way Mike would yell upstairs to wake me for work. When I would come down with T-shirt orders written on bar napkins from the Irish Rose, he would say, “Oh, that’s real professional, isn’t it?”

sic and art.” I was a little baseball player, but I wanted to be something cool like my brother, the guitar player. If not for Mike’s original writing, there would have been no Hillworms album. Our record made it to No. 26 on the national charts in company with the likes of Los Lobos, Dwight Yokum, and John Hiatt. We were told Rosanne Cash took a liking to it. Of course, he didn’t stop there. He recorded many excellent albums and moved to Fernandina Beach in Florida, to “live the dream” as he said… where he played on cruise boats and the coolest oceanside bars with Dan Voll but often solo. He filmed his video Secrets of the Sea in Fernandina Beach, where some of his ashes will be scattered, and some will be scattered in April’s garden.

To April, who took such wonderful care of my brother, I am forever grateful. Of course, Sam, Mike’s son, for being there until the end. Sam, you’re the last of the Donzes… get busy and keep the name going.

Mike told me recently, “Don’t waste a single day, Par… “ And while we talked about the environment, he said, “I love this earth.” Although I tend not to waste time, I will always remember his statement. I look at this beautiful earth and wish he could be his healthy, vibrant self and experience it like he once did…

The talented, handsome man

With the beautiful voice

Michael Donze

My brother

May we meet someday on white shores.

Amy Anderson read the following statement on behalf of April Frost: What will I do without Mike? He’s everywhere — in my ancient appliances he coached back to life; in the little brick walk in the garden; I enjoyed his kitchen concerts while I cooked; watching the Bulls and White Sox with him and Sam; and laughter into the night. Mike went to all of Tyler’s basketball games, and loved him like a grandpa. My time with Mike was a gift, and far too short. It was a big life with all of its joy and sorrow taken too soon. He was the love of my life. I am grateful for every moment.

Valerie DeCastris, Dave Taylor, Chuck Stiles, Dan Hallin, Dan Voll, Vicki Manson, Mike Tarrolly also made short memorial comments, and I thank them for their kind memories. In parting, everyone watched Secrets of the Sea. I highly recommend watching it on YouTube, and sending it to your friends.

Please make a donation to the SwedishAmerican Foundation (Mike Donze Memorial Music Fund on notation line) in Mike’s memory. The address is: The SwedishAmerican Foundation, 1415 East State St., SwedishAmerican Camelot Tower, Suite 100, Rockford, IL 61104. Phone: (815) 961-2496. Fax: (815) 961-2497. E-mail:

Friends and family gathered at the Irish Rose after the memorial, with food graciously provided by Mike and Robin Leifheit.

From the May 14-20, 2014, issue

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