Sally J. Michel, civic activist, former chair of city's Planning Commission and founder of Parks and People Foundation, dies

Sally J. Michel, a civic activist and former chair of the Baltimore Planning Commission who established the Parks and People Foundation and SuperKids Camp, died Aug. 16 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at her Roland Park home. She was 80.

“Baltimore has lost the most fearless and faithful champion she ever had,” said former mayor and governor Martin J. O’Malley. “She was a font of energy and optimism about Baltimore and the goodness of her neighbors.”

“There was no more loving person in this city than Sally Michel,” said Mayor Catherine E. Pugh. “She was one of those who made big things happen. She loved Baltimore and would do everything and anything to make this a great city. Everything she did went back to the city.”

“I don’t think in the last half century there has been a more important private citizen in Baltimore than Sally Michael,” added Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and Abell Venture Fund. “She was an extraordinary citizen model for all of us. Sally, who was uncompensated, tried to make the city a better place.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, called Mrs. Michel, “the model citizen who believed in Baltimore, and Baltimore believed in her.”

And Lainy LeBow-Sachs, longtime adviser to the late mayor and governor William Donald Schaefer, said Mrs. Michel was a longtime friend “who did more for the city than any two people.

“Whatever Sally took on, she put her heart and soul into it, and Mayor Schaefer used her every way possible because he knew she’d get the job done, and that’s what he liked,” said Ms. LeBow-Sachs, who is now executive vice president for external relations at Kennedy Krieger Institute. “She was an amazing person and a wonderful human being.”

The former Sally James was born in Pittsburgh and raised on the campus of what is now Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. Her father, Willard N. James Sr., was vice president and treasurer of the school; her mother Lucille James was a homemaker.

She was a niece of Edwin Leland James, a Baltimore Sun reporter from 1910 to 1912 who was later managing editor of The New York Times. She was also a cousin of former Baltimore Sun reporter and New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Russell Baker.

She was a 1956 graduate of St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Va., and attended Goucher College for two years before returning to Hollins.

In the early 1960s she came back to the Baltimore and married Robert E. “Butch” Michel Jr. in 1964. They settled into a home on Millbrook Road in Guilford. She moved to Wyndhurst Avenue a decade ago.

In the 1970s, Mrs. Michel joined the Baltimore Junior League and soon became its president. During her lifetime she was on the board of 57 local and state organizations; serving as chair of 19 of them. Among them were the city Planning Commission, the Walters Art Museum and the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

“Her relationship with the mayor was invaluable to have the Planning Department’s ideas listened to and taken seriously by William Donald Schaefer,” said Alfred W. Barry III, a former city planner.

“Sally was the ultimate selfless and tireless behind-the-scenes volunteer, using her extensive community contacts to improve Baltimore, from the opening of the original Center Stage auction to the campaign to save the Rouse Co. Harborplace plan, with [Richard O.] “Rick” Berndt, to many, many other examples,” Mr. Barry said.

“She was a force for good wherever she went. If Sally’s name was behind a project, people would get on board,” said Mr. Berndt, managing partner of Gallagher Evelius & Jones LLP. He called Mrs. Michel’s involvement on a project “a shortcut to momentum.”

It was a winning $20 auction bid to have lunch with then-Mayor Schaefer in the 1970s that “turned into a lifelong collaboration of creative problem solving, coalition building and grand thinking for the city of Baltimore,” wrote a daughter, Carter Brigham of Roland Park, in a biographical profile of her mother.

“Their shared qualities of undaunted optimism and boundless energy were a natural fit,” Ms. Brigham wrote.

Mrs. Michel hosted nearly 80 “brainstorming” dinners in her home for Mayor Schaefer, creating a “criticism-free environment for citizens, from cab drivers and teachers to business executives, to openly exchange ideas to tackle an issue of concern for the city,” her daughter wrote.

Mayor Pugh, then a recent Morgan State University graduate, was “part of a collective of young people who had been asked by Mayor Schaefer to attend those dinners,” she recalled.

“It’s where I learned to love salmon,” Mayor Pugh said with a laugh. “They were interested in our concerns about the future of the city.”

“I would call those gatherings a ‘salon,’ where people made a connection to the common good and the public good,” Dr. Hrabwoski said. He said Mrs. Michel “had a chance to impact thousands of lives of children and people. She never bragged about herself and always did it in an understated way.”

She was a founding supporter of the Baltimore School for the Arts, which opened in 1979, and was the force behind Expressions, an annual fundraiser and student performance that introduced thousands of influential Baltimoreans to the school. She chaired the gala for 15 years.

In 1983, Mayor Schaefer asked Mrs. Michel to develop a private-public partnership to enhance the city’s parks — that resulted in her establishing the Parks and People Foundation, which became a national model for urban parks, recreation and environmental issues. She recruited its first board and served as its founding chair.

He daughter noted that the foundation was involved with after-school sports leagues, community gardening, internships and investment in city parks and trails.

She also worked to establish the Baltimore/Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School. More than 77,000 people, 80 percent of them children, have gone through the Outward Bound program held at Leakin Park.

Another cornerstone achievement came in 1996 when she organized SuperKids Camp, an enriched reading program for elementary school children. She tapped programs such as Walters Art Museum, Living Classrooms, Center Stage, the School for the Arts and Goucher College, among others, to provide an experience that included horseback riding, sailing, music, acting and painting — in addition to intensive reading instruction.

When Mrs. Michel first brought up the idea of SuperKids, many said it couldn’t be done. “But Sally made you want to achieve the impossible,” Jackie Carerra, former executive director of the Parks and People Foundation, told Style magazine in a 2002 interview. “The non-believers fell away and she made the dream come true.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings became acquainted with Mrs. Michel about 20 years ago through SuperKids.

“She brought kids from all over the country to work in the program with inner city kids,” Rep. Cummings said. “She really believed that kids who got a good education over the summer remembered what they had learned. She was getting the next generations ready and changed the trajectory of their lives.”

She would invite the congressman to speak to the children.

“Sally thought I could connect with them. I had been raised in the city and she thought I would know what they were going through, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.” he said. “When I spoke, she’d sit in the corner and cry, because she felt so strongly about what I was talking about. She used me as an example — that a kid could grow up and be a congressman.”

Mrs. Michel presented every child who graduated from SuperKids Camp with a copy of “The Little Engine That Could.”

“She had a passion so deep for these kids,” Rep. Cummings said. “The idea that this lady, who could have retired and played bridge, was busy preparing the next generation to succeed. She wanted to put her fingertips on the future.”

“She touched the lives of so many people in so many positive ways,” Mr. O’Malley said. “Whether it was children in some of our poorest neighborhoods who benefited from enrolling in SuperKids Camp, or the young people from across the country that she brought to teach at the camp, her aim was to create relationships that brought positive things into reality.”

Starting in 1990 and continuing for the next decade, Mrs. Michel employed another set of gatherings — she called them the Singapore Group dinners — that brought together business leaders and “world-renowned speakers and experts,” her daughter wrote.

“Hundreds of ideas, many which were then executed, came about as a direct result of these evenings,” Ms. Brigham wrote.

On her resume, Mrs. Michel noted her last paying job was in 1959. Yet she said she drew vast “physic income” from her status as a lifelong volunteer.

She daily recited her high school motto, which came to define her own life: “Help us remember that what we keep we lose: only what we give remains our own.”

Her husband of 32 years, who was the owner of the R.E. Michel Co., a wholesale HVAC distribution business, died in 1996.

A celebration of life gathering for Mrs. Michel will be held at 10 a.m. Oct. 13 at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two other daughters, Parker Sutton of Cockeysville and Mary Paige Michel of Roland Park; a brother, Willard N. James Jr. of Roanoke; a sister, Mary Ann Cartledge of Roanoke; and eight grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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