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Baltimore's Sally Michel wanted to save the world; instead, she saved me

Twenty years ago, when I first met Sally James Michel, the Baltimore civic leader who died this summer at the age of 80, she told me she spent her days trying to “save the world.”

She certainly saved me.

In 1998, The Sun’s city editor, James Asher, gave me an assignment to interview Sally at her home. She had long lived in Guilford, but, having been raised in Roanoke, she still had a hint of Virginia in her voice. We spent hours in her kitchen that first day.

At the time, she was 60 and recently widowed, with three married daughters, all of whom lived in Baltimore, she noted with pride. She had a bright, unconditional love for the city — the whole city, not just her specific community or social set. Her inclusive vision for, and embrace of, Baltimore was for everybody. The city was her calling, particularly nurturing the talent found in its public institutions.

She founded the Parks and People Foundation and was a founding supporter of the Baltimore School for the Arts, where she remained an active booster. She also established SuperKids Camp — the reason for the interview those many years ago.

The program was new then, and something of a feat of imagination, connecting city elementary school kids to Baltimore’s museums and other cultural and recreational assets, which served as bases for the ambitious reading and outdoor activity camp. In memory of her husband, Butch, there was a sailing component, too, connecting children to the waterfront. The camp is still going strong today.

Sally knew how to gather momentum, rounding up the elites of the city to participate in her various projects, and funding them through the state or nonprofits. Like the young English King Henry V told his troops, others would regret they were not part of this battle — or, in her case, that Baltimore endeavor. Through Sally’s lens, I saw a beauty in Baltimore, a storied city that feels like a small town.

Hardly a naïve do-gooder, she was aware of her privilege and used her wide web of friends to the city’s advantage. Sally became an advocate for Baltimore causes in Annapolis. Former mayor and governor William Donald Schaefer, the first politician to draw her close, sought her kitchen cabinet counsel. She served on about 50 boards throughout her civic career, including the Abell Foundation’s. She also brought people together in private settings, namely her dining room, earnestly asking leaders of all ages and colors how to improve or enliven Baltimore. You couldn’t go anywhere with Sally without running into people she knew.

Sally took it all upon herself. She never ran for office, never took a cent in pay. Her power was her influence. And her greatest gift was her ability to read people and inspire them to live up to her hopes and expectations.

She read me.

I’m the oldest of three daughters, the same age as Sally’s eldest, and living far from my California family. She sensed a need and opened her hdoors. The Michel kitchen, plastered with family photographs, came to be somewhere I felt at home, with or without my notebook.

There I was at the Michel house for a Christmas party, as her daughters decorated gingerbread with names of people who would be there Christmas Eve. And there she was, in my apartment, a roaring ‘20s kind of place, for a reading of a Shakespearean send-up I wrote about King George II (George W. Bush). She cheerfully played the part of Queen Barbara (Bush) surrounded in a sea of Baltimore Sun friends.

Then there was the fine fall day that my mind was racing and my energy knew no bounds. I spoke too fast to be heard, ran around the harbor and wrote a bunch of stories by 2 p.m. I left the paper and found my way home, when my father, a doctor, got alarmed at my state of mind on the phone. But he was at UCLA.

“Is there anyone I can call right now?” he asked. I reeled off Sally’s number by heart. She was at my door in 15 minutes.

Little did I know, I was having my one and only bipolar manic episode, breaking into tears.

Sally cajoled me to go to Johns Hopkins Hospital. “I cry all the time, too,” she said generously.

She took me there. She saved me.

Sally used to tease me about all my note taking. “How’s my obituary?” she’d ask.

Well, I’m finally filing it. I hope I captured her charm.

Jamie Stiehm ( ) is a Washington columnist for Creators Syndicate, covering national politics and history.

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