Danny Michaelson, 74, Grafton resident who loved teaching, travel and theater

Daniel “Danny” Michaelson of Grafton died suddenly on Dec. 5, 2018 at home, in the midst of a favorite activity: packing for a trip, this time to Florida to meet with his brothers David and Peter.

Mr. Michaelson was born in 1944 and grew up in Queens, N.Y.

When Grafton’s Pettengill Schoolhouse changed owners about 30 years ago, it was rumored in town that the buyer was a Texas millionaire who “collected” country schoolhouses. But soon the neighbors were delighted to meet the real owner: funny, smart, affable Danny Michaelson.

Mr. Michaelson  attended Columbia and Harvard universities. His first degree was in mathematics, from where he went to study architecture, ultimately ending up with his real love which was theater: set design and costume design.

In 1981, Mr. Michaelson joined the faculty at Bennington College, teaching costume design and later mediation and conflict resolution. From 1991 to 1994 he served as Dean of Studies. He retired from full-time teaching at Bennington in 2011 with a legacy as a beloved teacher, inspiring mentor and ultimately friend to his former students. After retirement, he was a visiting faculty member in conflict resolution till 2016.

While at Bennington, Mr. Michaelson co-created and co-directed Quantum Leap, a program that has reached more than 2,000 truant and at-risk students, earning the Vermont State Merit Award of “Vermont Hero” for this groundbreaking community service.

Mr. Michaelson’s creativity and generosity reached far and wide. Combining his theater and conflict resolution backgrounds, Mr. Michaelson collaborated in the production of an Iran/Israel/U.S. play and wrote a short play about the country of Belarus. He attended a course in Ecuador for teaching English as a second language, so that he could help immigrants and refugees.

When the Women’s Community Club of Grafton produced a vintage fashion show, Mr. Michaelson stepped in as an enthusiastic, hard-working docent, helping make sure that the outfits were authentic – and that the whole thing was fun, besides being a great success for the WCC. Whether at a Halloween party or at an Oktoberfest dinner at MKT, you could count on Mr. Michaelson being in costume. He even managed to turn a tuxedo into Lederhosen for a party in Germany.

Mr. Michaelson loved dancing, most especially the tango. He taught ballroom dancing for years, including to some neighbors in Grafton. At his 60th birthday party, the guests wore tango dress and practiced the steps in a Vermont barn converted into a Buenos Aires bar.

He was one of those rare people equally good with numbers and words. Grafton resident Liisa Kissel recalls that years ago, he taught her the game of Anagrams, which his parents had always played, and that just a few weeks ago, he showed her  how to play Kenken. You could always learn from Mr. Michaelson and he was happy to share his knowledge, whether about the intricacies of the theater world, the rules of a game, the workings of mediation, or the history of the Pettengill Schoolhouse, which was  built in 1856.

His beloved schoolhouse continued a work in progress, slowly becoming a magical place where every item amused or had meaning. The gazebo at the corner of his property was originally the cupola of a building being torn down in Bennington – of course Mr. Michaelson came to the rescue and gave the cupola a new life.

The renovation of the schoolhouse proceeded in fits and starts, as Mr. Michaelson’s other big priority in life was travel. His endless curiosity and desire to catch up with friends led him all over Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. He loved Cuba and visited many times, learning enough Spanish so that he could talk to people. He was nervous about diseases and infections and worried about catching something – so he packed a virtual pharmacy and went anyway.

One of his trips took him to Germany, where a good friend was being ordained Catholic priest in the cathedral of Aachen. Always the loyal friend, Mr. Michaelson attended the solemn ordination. Word got around that “a priest from America” was in attendance, much to his amusement.

After retirement, Mr. Michaelson started working on a memoir and continued his involvement in prisons. A children’s book was in being planned, as well as more training as an English teacher for refugees. He loved his elected hometown of Grafton and was hoping to contribute more of his expertise to the community. The Grafton Historical Society recently appointed him to its Board of Directors. He was willing to serve in public office.

Besides his brothers David and Peter, Mr. Michaelson is survived by a niece, a nephew and his cousins, his beloved godsons Daniel Clarke of Ireland and Leo Daniel Kilz of Germany, and an enormous orbit of other family, friends, colleagues, and former students. He leaves a huge hole.

A memorial service will take place on Sunday, April 28, 2019, at Bennington College, with more details following.

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