My childhood friend and neighbor James Mikrut was one of the coolest people I’ve ever known.
I looked up to him… quite literally, he was 6 feet 6 inches. He was calm, funny, and creative. James knew how to have fun. When I think of James, I think of the freedom of summer — playing basketball at his house or camping at the beach.
As an insecure kid, I appreciated him inviting me as a friend to participate in shenanigans around the neighborhood. We laughed a lot and spent many hours in his backyard jumping on the trampoline or playing video games and watching The Simpsons at my house. I felt like a member of their family — Mary, Tom, James’ brothers Joseph and John, his cousin Adam. James clearly had many friends and he made me feel like a part of the group. His family made our family feel valued.
As we grew older, his skills as a drummer and artist grew as well. I admired his ability to make things happen — as a musician in a talented home-grown band, an artist creating eye-catching drawings, and later as an entrepreneur in his business start-ups. We didn’t hang out as much during college years, but we stayed in contact, and he and his family were at my wedding.
James loved the water. He invited Judy and I out with his wife Jenny to Spring Lake so we could go out to eat and take a ride in his boat to Grand Haven. I was grateful to still be associated with this cool dude. One of my favorite memories happened later on another boat — rafting together in West Virginia. This was a good time for childhood friends to reconnect and belly laugh.
By this point, his ICON Sign business was growing strong and so were his three kids. I taught a leadership class at East Kentwood High School. Over three years, he hosted four of my students for a job-shadow experience at ICON. James showed them around for a few hours and allowed them to ask questions. All of the students were interested in art or entrepreneurship and learned a lot in a short time with James. One of those students, also named James, went on to work as a graphic artist.
In December of 2014, James served as one of our 4X4 Judges for our Advanced Teen Leadership final presentations at the high school — Teams of 4 professionally-dressed seniors had 4 minutes to present to 4 judges how they spent 4 hours serving 4 a good cause. They then had to answer up to 4 questions from the judges. This was the capstone experience for these students showing how they put their leadership skills to work in our community. The winner of the event won 4 x $25 dollars, a $100 donation to the charity of their choice.
James asked great questions, thought it felt “cool” to be back in school and see kids giving back, and ended up being the spokesperson for the judges when giving their final verdict. After he announced the winning team, he gave the class advice to take risks after they graduate high school and to keep giving back.
Who knew that would be the last time I’d see him?
On the morning of April 25, 2015, James was outside working on his new property for his family. Under some trees near a creek, his heart suddenly gave out. I will never forget receiving his brother John’s phone call and then calling the rest of my family with the devastating news.
The Memorial Service was held outside at Townsend Park on May 1st. It was a beautiful day at the park with music and memories, a meaningful celebration of life – but we were all in shock and beginning a long road without him. There was a space for people to speak and share memories. I left inspired to “Live Big and Love Big” because those are the phrases that represent James. I later added “Adventure More” as a definition of his life and a plan to live my life more on purpose.
James’ friendship taught me much. His example still teaches me today. Mostly, I’ve learned to embrace NOW — Slow down, breathe deep, look around, and recognize the gifts everywhere. Laugh and jump in! Thank you, my friend.
From his obituary:
People ask what they can do for the family during this difficult time. The answer is to keep his legacy alive, whether you knew him well or you have never met him before. Spend time with your kids, ease tensions or mend any underlying hardships with your friends or family, go on a scenic walk and appreciate the miracle of nature, give back to your community, hug your husband or wife and just take a moment to appreciate the bond you share and get closer to your God or spiritual place, whatever that may be. If an amazing life force such as James can be taken away so quickly it is clear that none of us are invincible.