Seattle's Tuba Man dies from beating injuries
By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter
To sports fans across Seattle, Ed McMichael was an icon — a gentle giant whose tuba sounds outside area ball parks rang consistent, regardless of the action inside.
What fans may not have known about the Tuba Man was that for 10 years he was principal tubist with the Bellevue Philharmonic and played with the Cascade Symphony, before growing bored with orchestras and hitting the streets.
He once said his dream was to play "O Canada" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the mound at Safeco Field.
McMichael, 53, died Monday, nine days after police say he was kicked and beaten by a group of juveniles near a bus stop in the 500 block of Mercer Street. Police have arrested two 15-year-olds in connection with the assault.
On Tuesday, officials issued a public appeal for help from anyone who may have encountered the teenagers on the night of Oct. 25.
The Tuba Man's death has led to an outpouring of sadness and anger from those whose encounters with him left a lasting impression. His brother, Kelsey "Bud" McMichael, is surprised by the impact Ed had on this city.
"My brother never really sought that notoriety," said Kelsey McMichael, who flew up from Florida to help his brother after the assault.
"He didn't really want to be popular. Yet everything he did drew that out. It's amazing thinking back at all the names people called him: 'Crazy. Weird. Gentle giant.' Everyone had an opinion about him."
For 20 years, Ed McMichael was a fixture at Mariners, Sonics and Seahawks games and around Seattle Center — trading his talent for spare change.
"Any of us attending a Seahawks game always got a chance to say hello and give him some pocket change for his playing tunes," said Ross Cook of Gig Harbor.
Cook recalled that in 2003, his then-25-year-old son stopped to talk with the Tuba Man before a Seahawks game and asked if he'd ever actually attended a game. When he learned he had not, he bought him a ticket to sit with him and a friend.
"My son says Tuba Man had the time of his life at the game, and once people in the general-seating area around them recognized him, they began sending peanuts, hot dogs and beverages over 'gratis' to welcome him."
Commenting Tuesday on news of McMichael's death, one reader wrote that "one of the highlights of any trip to Safeco or KeyArena was hearing the music from the Tuba Man. I remember going to a TBirds game at the Key many, many, years ago.
"A friend of mine yelled out: 'I'll give you twenty bucks if you play the Addams Family.' Within a second the familiar bars of the song came out. As we dragged our friend across the center plaza to pay up, his smile could not have been wider."
April May, who works at the Vermont Inn in Belltown where Ed McMichael had lived since 2002, said she didn't know him all that well but remembers his kindness.
"I'd see him every morning and he'd talk a little. He'd always say 'good morning.' It's very sad."
Michael Olvera lives near the intersection where the assault took place and said he witnessed the beginning of it from his window. He didn't know Ed McMichael who, on that night, wasn't dressed in one of the wild, colorful hats the Tuba Man was known to wear.
Olvera said he saw a man he later learned was McMichael crossing the street to where about 30 teenagers had gathered. He said the teens had apparently attended an event at Seattle Center and were sitting on the hood of a moving car and playing chicken with passing traffic.
Olvera said that when he saw one of the teens kicking McMichael, he grabbed his cellphone and called police as he ran outside to the scene.
Olvera said McMichael appeared to have been kicked in the face but otherwise seemed OK, more concerned about a ring that was missing from his finger than about his injuries.
McMichael grew up in Seattle, graduated from King's Schools — originally King's Garden, a private Christian school in Shoreline — and attended North Seattle Community College.
Kelsey McMichael said his brother lost interest in playing with orchestras but "wanted to make money."
"I was living overseas at the time and he would send clippings every time he appeared in the newspaper," Kelsey McMichael said, recalling that his brother's first gig on the street was in the University District in 1988.
Kelsey McMichael said their parents largely supported Ed, and that after they died, he sent him money once a month until he realized Ed was making out nicely playing at local venues.
During a visit in April, Kelsey McMichael said he had a long talk with his brother "about the changing economy. I told him people wouldn't be throwing money at him at these events like they had been."
He said he told his brother it was unsafe to be walking around with money, that people are "angry, upset and unsure, and that he had to be careful with his money. He agreed. But I'm not sure how much he ever listened to me."
Kelsey McMichael had come to Seattle a few days after the assault to help his brother recover. "He was traumatized by what happened to him. When I opened the door he said, 'I can't leave my room.'
But each day he said he saw a little progress, and that after a few days, his brother was ready to drive again.
"He drove. He did OK." On Monday the brothers had an appointment to meet at 9 a.m. in the lobby of Ed's apartment building.
When Ed didn't show, the manager let Kelsey up to Ed's room, where they found him dead.