November 4, 2003
Subject: Death of Michael DeSisto, DeSisto School, Stockbridge,
The death of Michael DeSisto, founder and Head of the school
that bears his name rings loudly in the field of emotional
growth and therapeutic education in America. Long before
the current wide range of programs existed, people such as
Michael were few, and like any pioneers, often challenged
and criticized. Time will pass before students and teachers
of Michael DeSisto cast the final verdict.
I attended the gathering in Lenox honoring the life of Michael
on Tuesday, November 4th, four days after his passing following
several difficult years of suffering from kidney dysfunction
and a post-operative fatal stroke. The turnout of hundreds
of people and the numerous articles appearing in the news
attest to his achievements and the affection so many had
I was a long-time friend of Michael's and treasured that
friendship even as I found him singularly difficult, provoking,
and unaffected by my challenges. His vision, his dedication,
and his commitment to the young people he served were enough
testimony to him for his sense of "rightness."
Like so many others, I saw his weaknesses. However, I chose
to balance them with an in- depth exploration of his ideas
and his educational practices. It is that which I think will
stand the test of time.
Michael DeSisto lived on campus with his wife Margie, in
the middle of the student body. He carried a telephone in
hand as he talked with those he taught and counseled. I recall
one of my frustrated calls to him on his phone protesting
my concern over one of my students' transcripts, only to
find that he was speaking with me from Mexico and paying
attention to me on a Sunday, angry but willing to resolve
the problem fairly. I also remember the preparation for Dinner
Theater when he carefully instructed several students in
the art of ironing tablecloths so that the service and the
décor of the dinner were professional. He was the
master of hospitality at dinners and cabaret. He was also
a master therapist, who taught his staff while he demonstrated
his craft with students.
I think we should remember Michael DeSisto for a number
of principles that I have gleaned from his work over the
- Michael felt it was important for students to know
that he would not give up on them, nor would he support
failure. He would patiently wait to help a student work
through a problem; while reassuring them that they could
problem and return to school with success.
- Michael felt
that the child was the center of his work and that parents
must not destroy children with their problems,
their priorities, and their needs. He understood how powerful
family secrets and family behavior impacted upon children.
He offered and encouraged parents to look at their own
behaviors and their impact on their children. It was never
like Michael when he confronted you with your own transgressions.
Parents often became angry and quit, but Michael would
always take them back if they demonstrated the need to
was a true advocate for their child.
- Michael believed every
child had the possibility of insight and strength, and
beauty and fulfillment. He never
a student was expendable or the struggle with a student
less than valuable.
- Michael understood the value of boundaries,
structure, and even that awful word "no."
realized the power of addiction and the discipline necessary
to fight it. His insights into addiction were
powerful tools for student victims of the problem.
of the most fundamental concerns Michael identified for
his students was the need for time alone to reflect
and enjoy sanctuary from the pressures of daily living.
often misunderstood in this regard as many people found
it hard to stop activity, take time out, and not penalize
or be penalized by others.
- It was essential to Michael
that his staff participate in their own therapy as well
as help students; attend
to their own needs as well as student needs.
so many programs dealing with adolescents, Michael insisted
that the school program with its
growth component also needed to involve opportunity
for individual work with clinically trained professionals.
He demanded a
balance in his programs.
Most of all, Michael DeSisto returned respect to his students,
convinced them of their worthiness, and fought with them
to set higher goals and recognize their unique strengths.
I recall him sharing with me his memories of some of the
scouting values he learned earlier in his life and the debt
he felt in his heart for his spiritual journey rooted in
the Catholic tradition. Michael DeSisto was generous with
his gift of helping other people open to learning from him.
His considerable influence on me will be part of his legacy.
I am sure I mirror many people who feel the same.
Good job Michael, thanks!