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Mike VanJura

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Brought Jersey flair to Pennsylvania capital

Mike Van Jura, a music promoter originally from Hasbrouck Heights, flashed an unmistakable Garden State attitude in his adopted hometown of Harrisburg, Pa.

"Jersey Mike" identified himself on his Twitter profile as "social commentator," "rabble rouser," "connector," "instigator" and "peacekeeper."

"He was 90 percent Jersey and 10 percent Harrisburg, but we were breaking him down a bit, trying to make him a little more Harrisburg-ish," said Artie Tafoya, chief operating officer of the Appalachian Brewing Company, CQ THINK OK BECAUSE IT'S NAME OF A BREWPUB-CLUB where Mike brought alternative live music weekly.

Saturday night his last was typical. The man whom The Patriot-News credited with invigorating the capital city's live music scene booked four up-and-coming bands to play in the brewpub's second-floor Abbey Bar. The show, in partnership with radio station 97.3 The River, was a Toys for Tots fundraiser.

"Biggest Toys for Tots event yet. Over 400 thru CQ the doors. Hi fives," Jersey Mike tweeted in the wee hours of Sunday.

The 36-year-old died from a heart attack three hours later.

Mike had beaten lymphoma more than a decade earlier but was told the treatments put him at greater risk of heart disease, his father, Bill Van Jura, said.

Music was central to Mike Van Jura's life.

"His first concert, we took him to see The Who at Giants Stadium in 1990," Bill Van Jura said. "There was always rock music in the house. Though Michael was 36, he was a child of the '60s and '70s."

Mike immersed himself in theater at Hasbrouck Heights High School and previewed his "social commentator" and "peacekeeper" bona fides in a letter to the editor published in The Record on an Oct. 25, 1990. Weighing in on the lead-up to the first Persian Gulf War, Mike, then 14, implored President George H.xW. Bush and the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to sit down together "and think of a million ways" to avert hostilities.

After a stint at Bergen Community College, he went into the music equipment resale business. He married a woman named Patience. The newlyweds followed job opportunities to Harrisburg.

Mike worked a while for a cellphone company. "That was his sole commitment to the button-down shirt job," his father said.

He found his niche in music promotion and formed Greenbelt Events. "From reggae to rock, folk to family & your source for great shows across the Mid State," its website states.

"He introduced to this area what we refer to now as indie rock," Tafoya said. "We used to be set on rock-and-roll, but Mike brought in bluegrass, blues, any genre you could imagine."

Tafoya said Mike widely known in Harrisburg as "Jersey" was on his way to becoming the city's "preeminent" entertainment promoter.

He also made a name as a community activist. He railed against a requirement that independent concert promoters pay the city 10 percent of gross ticket sales. And in a September blog post, he assailed the City Council president for ordering the demolition of a community garden.

Considered political office

Days before his death, Mike Van Jura applied to fill a vacancy on the City Council.

"Michael always wanted to make a difference," his father said. "I'd say to him that in order to truly make a difference, you can't just sit on the sidelines. I was so proud when he said he was going to run for City Council."

Despite having lived in Harrisburg for a decade, Mike didn't particularly like the city, his father said: "He didn't like it because of the politics and corruption. The music scene he obviously loved, and he built that scene.

"What Michael did in Harrisburg was create his own environment, and in that environment you couldn't have found a happier person."

What made Jersey Mike supremely happy were his children: Kaiya Marie, 10, the daughter from his former marriage, and Lennon James, his 13-month-old son from a subsequent relationship.

"Kaiya was a part of his life that extended into his business," Bill Van Jura said. "She'd be there quote, unquote working the door [at concerts]. Where Michael went, Kaiya went. What this 10-year-old has on her iPod would blow you away."

In addition to his parents, Bill and Kathy, and his children, Mike Van Jura is survived by his siblings, Billy Van Jura of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Christopher Van Jura of Hoboken and Veronica Van Jura of Hasbrouck Heights; his grandmother, Vicki Van Jura of Hasbrouck Heights; and the mothers of his children, Patience Berdnick and Rachel Collins.

Visiting is from 6 to 9 tonight wed and 8 to 10 p.m. Friday at Costa Memorial Home in Hasbrouck Heights. The funeral Mass will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at Corpus Christi R.C. Church in Hasbrouck Heights.

Jersey Mike wore his native state on his sleeve.

"He was just a tenacious guy who put his mind to something and got things done," said his best friend and former housemate, Jay Bowser, a Web consultant and a Harrisburg native. "I always called him a street brawler. He was street-smart and very proud of his Jersey roots but he was instant family with everyone here."

Published in The Record on Nov. 21, 2012
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