A Tribute to Bernie: Stories and memories of Toledo music’s biggest booster

Ask anyone who knew him, and they’ll tell you that Bernie Rachuba was one of a kind. Born on August 25, 1965, Bernie was a graduate of Whitmer High School. He served in the Army as a medic for two years. He was the longtime manager of the Michigan Tavern in Temperance. His life’s passion, though, was supporting musicians.

There was no bigger booster of the Toledo music scene than Bernie. He was always visiting gigs and knew most every musician by name. He’d help them set up, would film shows to share on social media, constantly promote for performers— just out of sheer love for what they did. On nights where there would be almost no one in the crowd, Bernie would be there. 

On February 10, 2021, Rachuba passed away following a sudden heart attack. He was 55. In this article, a few of the people who knew him best share their memories of a man who was the glue that held the Toledo music scene together.

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Laura Kutzli, left, with Bernie

Laura Kutzli, best friend: “Bernie was a guy that loved life and loved people. He got joy out of just making others smile, and just spreading his love. He loved music— a huge supporter of so many artists and music in this city, into Michigan, too. He was just one of those people you can only wish would come into your life.”

Ryan Roth, musician: “There’s famous, and there’s legends, if that makes sense. And Bernie was just a quiet legend in the area. Truthfully was one of us, he was all of us. He looked like one of us, he talked like all of us. It wasn’t about anything other than just a collective love of things that are of the 419, you know? He was a big Toledo guy.”

Kyle Smithers, musician: “I could sit here and list all the great things about Bernie but it would take up the entire City Paper. Everyone he came in contact with was left with the strongest impression of a human being. If you met Bernie, you remembered him. He was honest…brutally honest most of the time, whether you liked it or not. He was the biggest support for local music this city has ever seen.”

Jeff Stewart, musician: “He was a gentleman, sharp wit, and he appreciated the blue collar gig economy, you know. The grind of a musician working, playing most nights of the week. It could be heavy, and I think Bernie appreciated that. He was dedicated to that cause, you know. He was one of a kind for sure.”

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Kyle Smithers, right, with Bernie

FIRST IMPRESSIONS
Smithers: “I met Bernie when I was 19 years old, 11 years ago. Bernie was the manager at the Michigan Tavern and he was in charge of booking the music for the venue. He gave me my first well-paying gig. He always took care of musicians like they were family. As most people know, the Tavern wasn’t the most ‘family friendly’ place but when Bernie was there you showed him the same respect that he would show you and everybody was on that same page. As years went by, they closed the Michigan Tavern but Bernie was still close with his family of musicians and continued to support (them).”

Kutzli: “I met him at the Michigan Tavern. And then, after I hadn’t gone there for a while, I had moved and things. We were at a party one night and he was there, and we reconnected. And I guess the rest is history.”

Roth: “When I came to this town as a musician, it could be intimidating. There’s a lot of great musicians in this area, a lot of great artists. … As I got more and more involved into that in Toledo, I just started seeing this guy there, you know. And Bernie was a guy who would just quietly walk into a room, kinda take it in, and then pull you aside quietly and talk to you. He just had an appreciation for those that create here, and are trying to make Toledo a better place to live. He was all of us.”

Stewart: “For the past decade or so, I was one of the musicians that he would come around on occasion and he’d record a few songs and say hello. He’d always tell me, ‘Hello, Mr. Stewart.’ We always shared a nice, genuine moment.”

Smithers: “Bernie used to book bands for an entire weekend, Friday and Saturday. He would pay the band on Saturday night for both nights. At the time, I was broke and needed the money on Friday. So he paid us for the Friday show. The next night he forgot that he paid us the night before and basically paid us double. I looked at the money and told him that he paid us too much. Obviously, it was the right thing to do but Bernie respected that gesture to the highest degree. That moment taught me two things that I hold very close when it comes to doing business, respect and honesty. He always cherished that moment.”

ALWAYS THERE
Kutzli: “He was just everywhere. We always loved going downtown, because we could just walk from place to place and hit up a number of people. Even during COVID, he was quarantining, but he would go out to Rocky’s to see Kyle (Smithers). He would stay outside and smoke a cigarette with Kyle, and then stand back and listen to a song, give him some money—  he always tipped— and then he’d leave. He was with his parents and he didn’t want them to be exposed to anything. But he still would go out for a few minutes and see people.”

Smithers: “Whatever anyone needed, he was there. That was his impact. Whether you were upset or in high hopes he was always a good shoulder to lean on. I can’t stress it enough, he was a support in all aspects for musicians in the Toledo music scene. Bernie struggled with alcohol in his younger years and became sober later in life. The entire time I knew him he was sober. He had made the same mistakes we all struggle with and he didn’t judge.”

Bernie, by Ryan Roth
Drawing of Bernie, by Ryan Roth. Drawn the morning of Bernie’s hospitalization.

Roth: “He was somebody that quit drinking and switched to non-alcoholics, and I’m pretty sure that the only reason half of the bars in this town carry non-alcoholic beer is because of Bernie.”

Kutzli: “If we’d go somewhere and they didn’t have N.A. (non-alcoholic) beer— because Bernie had been sober for 15 years— so, he would leave! Like, eff you if you can’t carry N.A. beer! It was always kind of a pet peeve with him.”

Roth: “He encouraged my sobriety, and I’m 16 months sober just because of his friendship and encouragement along the line.”

Smithers: “He definitely wasn’t afraid to tell you his opinion, but he always had your back because he has been there. My personal experience with Bernie was that he was a mentor that had the understanding of a friend. He was hands down my biggest support both in music and in life.”

Roth: “He was one of the biggest promoters that we had in the music scene. Constantly, every night, he was at a place shooting video and sharing it. Especially in the last year, where we couldn’t get out and see each other play and we’ve all been dealing with COVID stuff. He was still out there for those of us that were playing, going and sharing videos.”

Stewart: “One time, I had a day where it was really hot in the summertime afternoon a couple years ago. I had, like, three jobs on a Saturday, so I was pacing myself. And it was hot and sweaty, and I had done a daytime patio gig, I did a wedding after that, and I was running out to this joint to do a charity gig. And I was waiting patiently to take the stage, which at that point one of the guys said, ‘You gotta have your own P.A. system,’ which I thought was f—-ing ridiculous.

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Jeff Stewart, right, with Bernie.

“I stomped out to grab the gear out of my car, and there pulls up Bernie. He parks right next to me and disarms my hotheadedness, and helped me take my gear and get set up. And I did my third show of the night. Bernie probably calmed me down more than I could have appreciated at that time.”

Roth: “He was just that kind of guy. Made himself available to anyone at any time to help them out and lift them up.”

CHARITY
Smithers: “It’s going to be a tough year at Acoustics for Autism without Bernie. We all loved him. He was there from beginning to end. I remember last year my band Grizzly Grits had a new set list, and I was hyping him up for months and he was so excited to see our show. When it came time for us to perform Bernie was nowhere to be found. He caught the last song. When I got done performing Bernie was in the backstage area and I asked him where he went. He said he was needed to count tickets.”

Roth: “He was there early, and there late. I actually met my girlfriend at a benefit that he was part of getting that one [going]— selling raffle tickets at that one. The guy, he was a helper before anything, he was a friend before anything. He was a quiet kind of guy, you know. It wasn’t about the flair, it wasn’t about a name for him. … He just did the work. And he was somebody you could count on for that, too.”

Kutzli: “I don’t think he met a stranger, you know? He was a great, great listener, it’s one of the things I appreciated about him, but— he would certainly voice his opinion! Because I knew, if he was upset with me, I’d hear about it! But it didn’t last long— he’d let me know, whatever it was, and then later we’d laugh about it. He was very loving, caring, giving, but very honest with his thoughts.”

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Kutzli, with Bernie.

FAREWELLS
Kutzli: “I saw him Sunday, the day before his heart attack. It happened on Monday morning. I saw him on Sunday afternoon, and then we talked on the phone that night. And then, early Monday morning I got the message that he’d been taken to St. V’s.”

Roth: “I saw him last in November, just had a nice little talk with him that I wish was a longer talk now. It was the conversation we’ve had a million times— how are you? How’s the family? How are you doing? … He was always that kind of a guy.”

Stewart: “I think the amazing amount of people who were commenting and showing support for him, especially before he had passed away, everybody was pulling for him— I think that is powerful.”

Smithers: “Thanks to his daughter and her husband, Brandy and Connor McCloud, I got the chance to see my friend one last time before he passed. It was a one sided conversation. I made him a promise, I told him some things that I personally needed to say and I told him I loved him.”

Legacy
Roth: “I think what you’ll see is not only a continuation of what the music community has been, but a strengthening and a growth of what the music community has been. This community has always been a very strong, tight-knit group of people, and we’ve always supported ourselves and tried to build this Toledo scene, for both art and music and business. … I think you’re going to continue to see that grow. I think you’re going to see a lot of us try to fill the gap that Bernie leaves. He truly was doing something nobody else was doing, but I think you will see more of that. You will see more support across the lines. You will see more of us lifting each other up.”

Stewart: “Just keep moving forward with love in your hearts, and keep on doing what we’re doing best, and promoting the cause. Just be good to each other. There’s too much hate and darkness in the world, it’s too easy to let little things get in the way of loving someone.”

149637918_2802397916692108_8358315411143105639_nSmithers: “Keep playing, keep hustling. Never give up on your passion or your dreams. He wouldn’t want to see us crying over him. He would want us to put on the biggest celebration of life. Which is why all of us musicians and supporting friends in town are putting together the 1st annual BERNPHEST this year at the Toledo Beach Marina in La Salle, Michigan on Saturday, May 22. All proceeds will go to aid the family of Bernie Rachuba and support one of the greatest guys I have ever met who always had our backs. We love you Bernie, and you may be gone but you will never be forgotten.”

Kutzli: “He would love everyone to just keep the music alive, keep supporting everyone, and just get out there to support the artists and musicians. And make sure they have N.A. beer!”