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Melvin Joseph Montoya, age 80 of Inver Grove Heights, MN.
May 24, 1943 – November 4, 2023
On Saturday, November 4th, 2023 in Inver Grove Heights, MN, a small piece of glowing, bright sunlight made its way back to the heavens. Melvin Joseph Montoya was born on May 24th, 1943, to James (Jimmy) and Inez Montoya, in Trinidad, CO. He kept us all smiling and laughing for 80 years on this earth.
Melvin was the third child of what would become a large family of six boys and seven girls. His father Jimmy, a coal miner by trade, was drafted into the Navy just one year after his birth. With Jimmy away at war, Inez moved with the three children back to the Cordova family home in Westminster, CO. The only space for them was unfortunately in the dirt floor basement, but they made do. Jimmy returned in 1945 and took up work in construction.
The growing family was back on its feet by 1951. With eight-year-old Melvin and six siblings now in tow, the family relocated again to the coal mining town of Winton, WY, where Jimmy could return to his trade. Tragically, he was involved in an accident there that left him trapped underground for three days. Around that same time, the coal mining industry was collapsing with the arrival of diesel-powered trains. The combined mental toll of that terrible accident, the vanishing local economy and his military service left Jimmy unable to work. The desperate family returned to the Denver area and settled back into the Cordova family basement, which in the meantime had been upgraded with linoleum floors.
By then, the family had 10 mouths to feed, so at times they struggled to put enough food on the table. Mel would often tell of the loyal family dog, a St. Bernard, who once miraculously brought home a chicken when they had nothing to eat. This nurtured in him a deep, lifelong affection for animals, and Melvin owned and cared for many dogs, cats and birds throughout his life. His eyes would always light up especially bright at the sight of horses or wolves. If ever there was a pet nearby, you knew you could find him right next to it.
Competing for the spotlight in such a large family made Melvin prone to doing things big and LOUD. That included the day he, his brothers and some cousins broke into a fireworks warehouse, getting their hands on some black market M80s and bottle rockets. They brought bags of them home, as many as they could carry, and proceeded to light them off en masse at a neighbor’s house next door. Before the poor beleaguered homeowner could stop them, Melvin made a life-changing mistake. He set off a firework in the neighbor’s backyard shed, too close. The legendary explosion caused permanent hearing damage that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Teenager Melvin kept his teachers, parents, siblings, friends and pretty much everyone on their toes. When he wasn’t damaging eardrums, he passed the time by playing practical jokes. He’d hover around the kitchen to snatch the frying pan off the stove, then wait for the moment his mother Inez turned around with a handful of onions and nowhere to put it! He more than earned himself the nickname “Mellonhead,” as the family lovingly called him, and he shared the love by making up the most creative, nonsensical nicknames for anyone who stood out to him.
As the Montoya children grew old enough to work, things got a little easier for the family. They were able to move to a home in the projects of Globeville, CO. Still, the family was 19 members strong by that time, so the budget was stretched thin as ever. This meant they had no TV, so all the Montoya kids became their own entertainment. Some sang, some danced, some learned to play the guitar. Melvin did all three, and music became his lifelong passion (when he wasn’t getting into trouble).
Melvin’s damaged hearing didn’t stop him from singing, teaching himself to play guitar and leading multiple rock bands over the years. Being a career musician was his greatest ambition, and though that never came to pass, he spread his talent and love of music far and wide. Some of his proudest moments were being on TV and radio with his band Nuthin’ Special as a young man, taking the stage at Valleyfair in Shakopee, MN with the Silver Eagle Band, and performing solo acoustic guitar at Green Haven Golf Course and Event Center in Anoka, MN. He released an album with Stone Creek in the 80s, with song titles like “Wind, Rain and Sun,” “Mystery Man” and “Life is a Gamble.”
Mel really did have “moves like Jagger,” who was his hero, along with Niel Young, Willie Nelson and John Fogerty. He strutted around onstage, entertaining not just with his voice and guitar, but with his presence. This was true both on- and off-stage. He loved being the center of attention, making people laugh and just having fun. Many would say that he had a glow about him that persisted no matter what life threw his way. Any time you were feeling down, you could count on Mel to lift you up one way or another, on purpose or purely by accident! Never too proud to laugh at himself, he would call the accidents “Melfunctions.” He knew he wasn’t perfect, but he loved unconditionally, and he knew how to forgive. No matter what happened, you could count on his door to be open again before too long.
Music dominated Mel’s life for most of the 60s and 70s. He was briefly married to his first wife Lorraine D. Martinez in 1968, and they divorced in 1970. Later he met second wife Laura Lynn Bangert, and they welcomed their daughter Jenelle in 1977. In 1978 they relocated to Minnesota, where sons Jeremy and Jeffrey were followed by daughter Jamie. After settling in Elk River, MN, Laura and Mel divorced in 1991. To stay close to his kids, Mel moved in next door with elderly family friend Milton C. Marohn, who needed a caretaker. After Milton passed away in the early 00s, Mel remained in Elk River for more than 20 years.
A jack of many trades, if you asked Mel what he did for a living, he’d say he was a Machinist. In the 80s and 90s he worked in plastics and metal at companies like Northwest Swiss-Matic and Pomeroy Tool. In those days he counted himself among the everyday working men, but he never ceased to pursue his music and other interests. You could often find him in the garage tinkering with his blue 1967 Chevrolet El Camino on a sunny summer afternoon, listening to an eight track of Credence’s Green River. He was also an artist, sketching portraits and creating landscapes with chalk pastels. And he took pride in his sense of style, collecting more pairs of shoes and hats than he had room to keep. He’d often ask, before going anywhere with anyone, what they thought of his outfit.
Later in life, Mel retired both from work and the stage. But in his second act, he helped foster a new generation of musicians in Elk River, nurturing a love of playing guitar, performing and listening to music in his sons, and their friends. Numerous teens gravitated toward the Montoya house as a safe place to be themselves, and band rehearsal was always happening downstairs. Many local kids, now adults with kids of their own, have fond memories of Mel and his always unpredictable, eternally youthful ways. He was convinced he could “jump up in the air and come down in slow motion” -- and he would show you just about any time, anywhere (whether you liked it or not). He wasn’t too proud to walk around town holding an umbrella on a perfectly clear day to keep the sun off his neck, even after somebody shouted, “Hey, it ain’t raining!” And you could often spot him driving noisily down the street in yet another blue Chevy pickup truck, looking down on the rest of us from atop four giant tractor wheels. He didn’t even care if it got him noticed by the Highway Patrol one too many times. As long as it got him noticed, it was what he wanted to do.
Mel’s love of self-expression and creativity inspired his daughters, too. Jenelle learned to play the flute and pursued a Music Minor at Gustavus Adolphus College, where Mel attended her concerts. Daughter Jamie pursued interests in violin, trumpet and guitar, and developed a talent for visual art, naturally gravitating toward chalk pastels. Unfortunately for Mel, some of his kids developed the same prankster tendencies he had in his youth too, and he learned to take it as well as he dished it. In those moments, his mother Inez was surely looking down and having a good laugh.
In 2009, Mel’s youngest brother Dannie Rei Eugene became a widower, and Mel invited him to move from Colorado to Minnesota so they could keep each other company. Dannie became Mel’s best friend, and when the signs of dementia began to appear, his caregiver too. Eventually, Mel needed more intensive support, and spent the final years of his life at White Pine Advanced Memory Care in Inver Grove Heights, MN, where his cockatiels Captain and Trooper kept him steadfast company. That didn’t stop him from making music: he recorded his final song, “When the Sun Shines In,” a happy late-life tune, in 2016. He was very proud to know it could be found on YouTube, Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music.
Dannie sadly passed away from prostate cancer in April 2022. It was the one thing that seemed to keep Mel down for good, and he never quite recovered from the loss. He took a final trip to Colorado to attend Dannie’s funeral with daughter Jenelle and son Jeremy. They drove to some of his favorite places – Garden of the Gods, Red Rocks – and visited with many beloved members of the Montoya clan.
Melvin Joseph Montoya will always be remembered by those who loved him as an endearing, unique, creative and soft-hearted individual who could charm the socks off just about anyone, even his hospice care team, right up until the moment of his death. His warm, bright glow, the silliness and the laughter will forever be missed. But his memory and his infectious love of music will go on.
Melvin was preceded in death by brother Dannie Rei, brother Glen, brother James, mother Inez and father Jimmy. He is survived by daughter Jenelle, son Jeremy, son Jeff and daughter Jamie Acharya, grandson Raphael Acharya, granddaughters Jayla, Veda Acharya and Bianca, brother Dave and sisters Barbara, Katherine, Kristine, Francine, Connie, Miriam and Naomi, and many others.
Melvin’s cremains will be interred at Better Place Forest in Scandia, MN, in spring 2024. Donations in lieu of flowers can be sent to Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services, Inc. at http://www.maars.org.
Arrangements entrusted to SUMMIT Funeral & Cremation