Life of the party: Crafaik left mark on business, politics
Those mourning the death of J. Michael Crafaik III, the entrepreneur and libertarian political leader who took his own life last week at age 37, say he'll be remembered for his sharp mind and his loyalty to friends even as he struggled with the demons of bipolar disorder.
"The Michael that I knew was one of the smartest, kindest human beings I've ever had the privilege of knowing," says Eric Strzepek, who befriended Crafaik in the eighth grade and graduated with him from Charlottesville High School.
Crafaik was such a top student, Strzepek recalls, that he earned 5s–- the top possible score–- on all of his Advanced Placement exams, and was named a National Merit Scholar. At the same time, Strzepek says, his friend could pique authority figures with a disdain for "silly" rules.
"If there was a beautiful 75- to 80-degree day in February, he, I, and another friend were more likely to be found playing basketball at the Dell or thowing a football at Chris Greene or doing any number of other things that we felt were more important than being in school," Strzepek recalls.
Crafaik remained in Charlottesville to attend University of Virginia, where he double majored in physics and Russian, pledged Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, and used his hometown knowledge to show others a good time.
"He always looked out for guys from out of town," says Brian Smith, a New York native who was Crafaik's fraternity brother, ultimate frisbee teammate, and roommate for three years. "He took us to good spots, places around the city, parks, cool places to hike."
In the early 1990s, Crafaik's father, John Crafaik, owned the popular 24-hour eatery Littlejohn's, as well as an upstairs music venue called Jazz, a concept that the younger Crafaik started thinking about improving while still in college.
In 1994, a year after his graduation, he opened Michael's Bistro in the former Jazz location, offering fine dining and local music along with a then-brand new concept: microbrews.
Besides encouraging faculty to patronize the restaurant and introducing craft-made beer to a still Budweiser-centric populace, Crafaik designed a wine list for budget-conscious diners and organized beer-tasting dinner parties.
Yet Crafaik also had another party in mind: the Republican Party.
"Most people only know him as a conservative bucking the tide in liberal Charlottesville," says author Doug Hornig. "The truth is that he was one of the most open-minded people politically that I've ever known. He was very interested in politics as a vehicle to change things for the better."
By 1997, Hornig says, Crafaik was hosting lively Wednesday night political discussions with fellow libertarians at the Bistro. "Michael," says Hornig, "believed that government was out of control because it had lost ability to trust people with their own freedom."
Backing his political views with action, Strzepek says, Crafaik donated to charities and volunteered for various local nonprofits including Literacy Volunteers of America, teaching immigrants to read.
"He believed very much that rather than government taking a direct role in addressing these problems," says Strzepek, "that private citizens should and could do these things better."
Although Crafaik was defeated in his two City Council runs–- in 1996 and 1998–- he became chair of Charlottesville's Republican party in 2000. The night of his victory, Crafaik was involved in a dust-up at Mono Loco restaurant, in which he filed a criminal assault charge against the Republican leader he ousted.
If Crafaik was beginning to show signs of what would become his greatest battle, friends and family say they weren't aware that there was something seriously wrong.
"He was always a little hyper, but there's nothing wrong with that," says Crafaik's maternal half-brother Chris Strong. "He just had a lot of energy."
Strong, 44, says the seven-year age difference created some childhood distance, but as adults both worked hard at the relationship. The two spent a summer together in Seattle, and three years ago Strong moved back to Charlottesville with his wife and three daughters, planning to partner up with his brother to open an organic grocery store downtown.
Crafaik loved the idea of a family business and dreamed–- after childhood visits with an uncle on a commune–- of a "family compound," Strong says.
"He liked the sense of community, the spirit of dependence on one another," says Strong. "He had a big heart, he wanted to bring people together."
The business plan didn't work out, and Strong would later buy Littlejohn's from John Crafaik. Michael Crafaik's problems, meanwhile, were beginning to mount.
In 2005, Crafaik–- who had stopped working at the Bistro for several years–- was involved in an altercation with an employer in a heating and air conditioning business. Prior to his acquittal, Crafaik entered a Williamsburg substance abuse treatment center, but he checked himself out before completing a court-prescribed 30-day treatment.
His family now says the appropriate diagnosis–- bipolar disorder–- came too late. As many as two million Americans suffer from the disorder, and Crafaik, his family says, was one of them.
Formerly known as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder causes sufferers to experience extreme highs–- mania–- followed by extreme lows. According to the leading statistical manual used by psychiatrists, the manic phase can include sleeplessness, hallucinations, and delusions– while the depressive phase is often accompanied by thoughts of suicide.
Last year, Strong remembers, Crafaik confessed that he'd considered suicide, but promised his worried older brother the thoughts were "just a fantasy." Still, the anguish was obvious.
"He said, 'I'm in a lot of pain,'" Strong recalls. "'I'm suffering.'"
Although Strong says Crafaik had taken various medications, he began resisting treatment, saying it wasn't helping and that he didn't want to be "medicated Mike."
This past summer, Strong says, Crafaik entered a manic phase during which he had a disagreement with his Bistro business partner. After the restaurant briefly closed, it reopened under Crafaik's management with a new staff. Strong says Crafaik's mania ended, and in the six weeks or so before his death, a quieter person emerged.
"He seemed like a ghost," Strong says, "a ghost of Michael."
As with any disease, such as cancer, Strong says, "you have to be able to treat yourself and be willing to treat yourself." One of the toughest elements of treating bipolar disorder, he says, is convincing the sufferer to stick with treatment. Strong says the family had met with Crafaik's doctors and had tried to intervene, but "we didn't know what to do."
In spite of the depressive phase, Crafaik gave nothing but compassion and thoughtful conversation a few weeks ago when he ran into an old friend at Miller's restaurant and the two walked around the Downtown Mall catching up.
"I saw him, gave him a big hug like nothing had ever passed," recalls the friend, Tayloe Emery. "I never saw anything that gave me any reason to believe that this tragedy would unfold this way."
On Thursday, December 11, according to Chris Strong, Crafaik awoke and performed a typically generous gesture he enjoyed: making breakfast in bed for his fianc©e. He told her he was going to the Bistro, but he never showed up for work.
Strong says the family later learned he'd instead taken a gun to Sugar Hollow, a popular hiking and swimming spot northwest of White Hall. "Just a fantasy" had become a horrific and heartbreaking reality.
Crafaik, who survived on life support until early Sunday morning, December 14, still had one act of generosity.
"He was an organ donor," says Strong, adding that doctors were able to identify matches for his two kidneys, so "somebody's living because he died."
And that, say friends, is how Crafaik would have wanted it.
A memorial service for Michael Crafaik will be held at the Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church on Rugby Road at 2pm on Friday, December 19. Chris Strong says those wishing to make donations in Crafaik's name to benefit research toward finding a cure for bipolar disorder can do so at www.dbsalliance.org. And the family is currently organizing the Michael Crafaik Ultimate Frisbee Tournament to be held sometime next year.