Melissa Matuzak grew up in a small Michigan town, moved to Detroit the day after high school graduation and worked her way up from passing out concert flyers to managing the Smashing Pumpkins.
Organized, driven and possessed of a reputation for solving problems before they could fester, she reinvented herself as a criminal defense lawyer in Chicago, working on wrongful-conviction cases and a bid to reduce the sentence of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“She’d had experience managing people, experience with all the kinds of things on the road,” said defense lawyer Andrea Lyon, a former dean of Valparaiso University Law School. “Her ability to see the center of the case, what the real question was, was really amazing.”
Pumpkins founder Billy Corgan posted on Instagram that she was “wise beyond her years, whip smart, cool but not hipster-prone; as evidenced by her responsible work in the music business at such a young age.”
Ms. Matuzak died Friday of bile duct cancer. She was 51.
In her off hours, Ms. Matuzak sang in the band The Drawers and kept bees at her West Side home.
She and her husband Joe Vanderstappen gave away the honey under the label “K-Town Honey.”
Corgan, who met her in Detroit in the early 1990s, posted this about her: “I used to tell Melissa that she had a quality that reminded me of my Mother (let’s called [sic] it a somewhat detached ability to be above the fray of human drama, but somehow not lose one’s empathy in it or or towards it). . . .this is how we first connected: I, the upstart in some band coming through town, and she as the rep in the front office who was to make sure that young punks like us were happy and didn’t tear up the dressing rooms.”
Around 2000, Corgan said, they wound up managing the Smashing Pumpkins together.
She also worked with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other up-and-coming bands, according to her husband.
Posting on Facebook, Michigan club owner and promoter Amir Daiza wrote of Ms. Matuzak: “You are responsible for the success of the Detroit music scene 30 years ago.”
Young Melissa grew up in Alpena, Michigan. Her father Bradley was a heavy equipment operator at a quarry.
“She was not a small-town girl in her mind,” said her friend Jill Schumacher.
Ms. Matuzak’s husband said she left for Detroit the day after she finished high school.
She started working at Ritual, a concert promotion company, booking shows at venues including Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall, according to Schumacher, who worked for her.
“She embedded herself quickly in the music scene there and made a name for herself as a concert promoter,” her husband said. “She didn’t take any bull----.”
In 1998, she moved to Chicago. She met Vanderstappen, a metal artisan, when he was working next door to the Smashing Pumpkins’ recording studio. After a first date at Garfield Park Conservatory, she left for a Pumpkins tour.
“A lot of our courtship was old-fashioned, over the phone,” he said.
They got married in 2017.
After graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago, she started law school at DePaul University.
“She always had this principled sense, this moral sense,” her husband said. “She never screwed anyone over. She believed in equal treatment under the law.”
Another instructor at DePaul, attorney Leonard Goodman, remembered how, as a paralegal, she combed through thousands of documents in a federal securities-fraud case until “she was able to find the gold” — evidence that led to a not guilty verdict. She spotted letters that showed the defendant had been duped by a con man, Goodman said.
Later, she helped win a not guilty verdict in a first–degree murder case in downstate Illinois.
“She did a lot of good in a short career,” Goodman said.
Lyon, one of her law school professors, said Ms. Matuzak helped get John Fulton and Anthony Mitchell exonerated in a 2003 murder case.
Lyon, who’s helping to organize a DePaul scholarship fund in her name, said she treasures a moment from Ms. Matuzak’s graduation. Lyon had given her a decorative pin with a sword–and-rose design that previously had been given to her by New Mexico defense attorney Randi McGinn.
“She walks across the stage, stops in front of me, crosses her arms over her chest and bows,” Lyon said.
Ms. Matuzak is also survived by her mother Barbara Burton and brother Bradley. Funeral arrangements are pending, according to her husband.
He said she didn’t like President Donald Trump, so, “I’m glad that she lived to see him get booted out of office.”