CHAMPAIGN – Even if you didn't know Michael Carragher personally, chances are you've sampled some of his cooking.
From box lunches to wedding buffets, his culinary creations have been a staple at Champaign-Urbana events for almost three decades.
The co-founder of Michaels' Catering, whose flair for food gave Champaign-Urbana its first upscale catering service, died last week after a long battle with cancer. He was 62.
Friends and colleagues remember his devotion to hard work, his love for travel and the arts, his quiet philanthropy and his willingness to drop everything for a friend in need.
"He was a thoughtful person," said longtime close friend Jane Solon, who was with Mr. Carragher when he died Thursday. "He will be missed in this community."
In the spring of 2007, just two weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his brain, Mr. Carragher opened his home to Solon's son, Chris, who had been badly burned in an accident. His home had an accessible shower Solon could use to bathe her son.
"Even when he was sick he tried to help other people," she said. "He helped Chris, encouraged him. They convalesced together."
Mr. Carragher was born in Champaign and attended Champaign Central High School. He later graduated from Oklahoma State University in the culinary/hotel management program.
After a career with Marriott Hotels and Resorts – which took him to Washington, D.C., Boston, St. Louis, Houston and Los Angeles – he returned to Champaign in the late 1970s.
He worked for Eisner Foods, then bought its catering business with two partners, Michael Nelson and Joan Clement, to form Michaels' Catering in 1984. When Nelson moved to Chicago in 1989 (he later returned to start Carmon's Creperie), Mr. Carragher went into business with Marty Kamerer, who had worked at Michaels' in high school and college.
Mr. Carragher was "extremely disciplined," a perfectionist who brought out the best in others, said Kamerer. In terms of catering, "he brought a new level of service and class to the community."
The business, which now has 30 employees, will continue "in the tradition and the manner which he intended," he said.
Mr. Carragher gave quietly to a number of causes and donated food to many fundraising events, friends said. When Solon's father died three years ago, Mr. Carragher drove to Streator with a carful of food.
In October he was honored for a $100,000 gift to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. The money capped a matching-funds campaign for a $1.125 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, said Krannert Director Mike Ross. Mr. Carragher had previously supported the center anonymously.
"I think he was one of the most beautifully quiet kind of generous supporters to the arts in our community," Ross said.
The whimsical, colorful sculpture at the west end of West Side Park was commissioned by Mr. Carragher after his mother died to honor his parents. It's called "Tootsie," his mother's nickname.
He was a mentor to the many young people who landed jobs at Michaels' Catering, said Solon, whose three children all worked there. His motto: Part of your uniform is a smile.
"He showed them how to run a business and how to work with people," Solon said.
And he had a way with people. Kamerer said part of Mr. Carragher's success was his ability to connect with his clients on a personal level.
"He was very engaging," Kamerer said.
He wasn't afraid to ask for a favor, either. Once, during a function hosted by the late Marajen Stevick Chinigo, owner of The News-Gazette, Mr. Carragher mentioned that he was headed to the same region of Italy where she had a villa. He managed to arrange a full tour for himself and his sister.
"When he wanted something, he got it done," Kamerer said.
He traveled around the world and was among the first tourists to visit Vietnam when that country opened to foreigners after the war, Solon said.
Mr. Carragher overcame some personal adversity. He was born with a right hand that had only a thumb and one other digit that doctors later divided into two fingers, Solon said.
"He never let that stop or impede him," she said, noting that he was a talented diver as a youth.
Mr. Carragher has two sisters, one in Colorado and one in Florida. A memorial service will be held at a later date, Kamerer said.