Editor's note: Each week reporter Matthew Guerry shares the life stories of residents of Minnesota or the Dakotas who have died recently. Maybe you don't know them, but their stories are worth knowing. If you have a suggestion for someone to be featured, email mguerry@forumcomm.com or call 651-321-4314.

Ever since he was a kid, Mark Ertelt loved to play the drums.

Growing up, he performed for neighborhood children in the basement of his family's home in Valley City, N.D. When he wasn't doing that, he would tap out rhythms on his siblings.

He carried that habit with him over the course of his musical career, most recently with a band called Karma.

"If you were with 'Ert,' and he was listening to music and you guys were wherever, he would just start drumming on you," said Karma bandmate David Martin.

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Ertelt would use your back as a bass drum, Martin said, your shoulders as a snare and would "slap you on the head for cymbals."

"It was his way of showing affection," he said in an interview.

Whether performing onstage or mixing a drink, Ertelt, who died of cancer April 26, 2021, at age 58, strove to entertain. His affability and quick-wittedness were often on display from behind the counter at Labor Club Bar in Valley City, where he tended bar for 21 years.

A young Mark Ertelt peers out from behind a drum kit. (Submitted photo.)
A young Mark Ertelt peers out from behind a drum kit. (Submitted photo.)

Though music was his passion, according to his obituary, bartending was his vocation, one that asked him to be both comedian and counselor. Regulars at the club showed him gratitude on occasion with gifts or meals, his sister Deb Ertelt said. His refrigerator is still stocked with homemade salsa made for him by a friend.

"I think as a bartender that he needed to entertain," Deb said.

Kerry Anderson hired Ertelt at the club not long after he opened it. Ertelt became Anderson's "main guy" in time, and helped oversee the place as needed.

"I could go on vacation for four or five days, and he would take care of everything," Anderson said, describing Ertelt as one of his best friends and his best employee.

The child of Harold and Audrey Ertelt, Mark was born on Dec. 27, 1962, in Valley City. He was the only son in a family with four daughters. His lifelong musical passion was nurtured by his neighbor, Connie Huber, who became Ertelt's drumming teacher.


He played shows while a student at Valley City High School, where he graduated in 1981, and went on to learn the ropes of music recording at the Recording Workshop, an arts school in Chillicothe, Ohio. After graduating from the RecW, as it's known, Ertelt returned to Valley City and ran sound for Karma before becoming a member of the band.

Touring with the band, he traveled the Upper Midwest and also played shows in Canada.

"He was a drummer extraordinaire," Martin said. "He was a rock drummer, a solid rock drummer, with a jazz feel."

Indeed, drumming idols of Ertelt's ranged from Rush's Neil Peart to jazz drummer Buddy Rich.

For two years, Ertelt attended Valley City State University and played drums for the EBC fraternity's "Hit Parade." He continued to perform at the fraternity's alumni Christmas parties for decades.

Ertelt lent his talent to the university music department whenever they were short a percussionist. He was conferred posthumously an honorary degree. Deb Ertelt said that was the result of numerous letters sent to the university in praise of her brother's contributions.

"People loved him like crazy," she said.

Ertelt is survived by his sisters.