INTERBAY — Around the neighborhood, Ellis Michael was known as "the mayor of South Tampa."
"You'd walk into Home Depot or Loew's or Sam's Club and everyone knew him," said his brother Greg Michael. "If you come down here and talk to anybody, they knew him. They all came to him for advice. He always had a joke, always had a story. Everybody loved him."
Mr. Michael would have turned 69 this week. On Jan. 10, he didn't make his regular 7 a.m. phone call to his longtime girlfriend Diane Pandich. She went to his house and found him lying on the floor, next to his bed, clutching his chest. He had died very suddenly from a heart attack.
"He was active right up until the end," his brother said. "It was the way he would have wanted to go. He wouldn't have made a good patient in a hospital."
Mr. Michael had lived in South Tampa since he was a teenager. He showed passion and a talent for creative endeavors from an early age and ultimately made a living as a woodworker through his company Mi-Ken Creations. He operated out of a barn he built in his back yard and specialized in custom furniture and cabinetry. But he was also adept at painting, sculpture, metalwork and pottery.
"The woodworking was a way to pay the bills," said his sister Brenda Michael Hodges.
Homes and business around Tampa feature his art and woodwork. Pandich, in fact, met him seven years ago when he was recommended as the best person in town to remodel her kitchen. Pandich said it was a drab and tiny kitchen when he first saw it, but by the time he finished, "it looked like the kitchen in an upscale home."
Pandich and Mr. Michael were drawn together almost instantly, she said. Mr. Michael had been married when he was a young man — his wife Patricia died of cancer when she was about 30, after just two years of marriage — but in Pandich he said he had found his soul mate.
"Our mother died young," his brother said, "and Ellis would say that he thought our mother had sent Diane to him, because she was the perfect woman for him."
When his family started going through his belongings after Mr. Michael died, they found a trove of how-to books. Mr. Michael possessed an insatiable curiosity and always wanted to learn new skills. And then he loved sharing what he learned with his neighbors.
"If you needed anything, you knew he was the one to come to," his brother said. "He had all these books because he loved to teach people how to do things."
His memorial service lasted longer than the family expected because so many people were eager to get up and talk about how Mr. Michael had touched their lives.
It wasn't unusual for Mr. Michael to notice a new product, maybe something used in construction, and drive to the factory to learn everything he could about it.
"His mind worked differently than most people's, because he was an artist," Pandich said. "We'd be in the car and I'd be driving along and he'd notice everything. He'd say something about the way a tree curved. He never stopped learning, and he never stopped teaching."
Besides his brother Greg and his sister Brenda, Mr. Michael is survived by his sister Pamela Hampton.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently died. He can be reached at [email protected]