When Mike Demmer died at 59, those close to him said he believed he had done just about everything he wanted.
He had crisscrossed the country, operated his own bar and cared for a sulphur-crested cockatoo that squealed like a pig. Along the way, Mike also wrecked a couple of cars and motorcycles and certainly ticked off a few people with his candor.
His wanderings reflected the type of life that he wanted to live.
“Mike … carved his own path, for sure,” said his best friend, Don Dunwoody, at Mike’s funeral. “Wouldn’t we all like to do that? To not be afraid to do things that may be controversial, that some people may not agree with.”
Mike died April 6 of heart and lung failure, said his father, Vern Demmer, leaving behind an archive of stories. Many cannot be repeated in front of children.
Mike was born Feb. 1, 1962, in Dubuque, the third of five children of Vern and his late wife, Mary Lee Demmer.
He was a precocious boy.
Around the age of 5, Mike received a pair of cowboy boots for Christmas, Vern said. Mike decided that his friend Theresa should have a pair, too. So, he crossed U.S. 20 to K-Mart to grab some.
“We didn’t know about it until the cops came,” Vern said. “That was Mike.”
Don met Mike in the neighborhood in which they both grew up, and the pair were stuck like glue until Mike’s death.
Don recalled an incident during their teens when Mike saved him from drowning in the murky waters of the Maquoketa River.
At Dubuque Senior High School, they played baseball. Don was the pitcher and Mike, the catcher. Mike was on the heavy side, so the team used to call him Engelberg, the name of an overweight character from the sports movie, “The Bad News Bears.”
After Mike graduated in 1980, he began driving semi-tractor trailers.
He put in 18 to 20 hours at a time for two-week stretches. Mike’s travels took him to places such as Corpus Christi, Texas, Tempe, Ariz., and Roswell, N.M.
When Mike was 19, Vern recalled his son hitchhiking to Florida, where Mike was said to have slept on a beach picnic table.
Mike lived for speed. As soon as he obtained his license, he started riding motorcycles. He blew through the countryside on his Honda Gold Wing and Harley-Davidson Sportster.
In the mid-1990s, Mike gunned his bike — by his own estimate, at least 70 mph — on West Third Street by what is now called MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center. He lost control of the bike after encountering a bump in the road, according to Vern. Mike struck a parked car and was catapulted over the vehicle, crashing through the windshield of a second one.
Several doctors were attending a party nearby and heard the impact, Vern said. That is probably why Mike survived.
“They thought they were going to have to take his leg off,” Vern said.
Mike was controlling when it came to making plans or undertaking a task.
“I’m always the boss, and I’ve got three things to say,” Mike often said. “I dictate, delegate and designate.”
Mike enjoyed feeling like a manager, but his attitude generally was a display of bravado, Don said.
In 2008, Mike married Kim Mayfield in New Mexico. The couple returned to Dubuque eight years later.
Mike never had children. Instead, he made his nieces and nephews laugh and adopted animals.
“The animals had no expectations of Mike,” Don said. “You just feed me, and I’ll be your friend.”
In the late 1990s, Mike acquired a llama, two wolves, a tiger and a lioness.
He raised the big cats, Ponce de Leon and Pandora, as pets, bottle feeding the fluffy cubs.
Mike intended to breed them at a small acreage east of Tennyson, Wis., where he lived at the time. The offspring, a tigon, would be exceedingly rare.
“There is something about a person who raises lions, tigers and wolves,” Don said. “Those are animals that will eat you.”
Mike’s plans fizzled when the lioness died.
About a year ago, Mike experienced a stroke. He started to weaken and feared he would fall asleep at the wheel of his semi. Lung and heart difficulties run in the family, Vern said.
In December, doctors offered a prognosis. At most, Mike could expect to live six months.
He did not fear death, Don said. Mike just wanted his family, his animals, a motorcycle, a few Heineken beers and a glass of Evan Williams Kentucky bourbon.
“Everything else was complicated,” Don said. “He didn’t want to deal with it if he didn’t have to.”