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Posted November 5, 2003 

November 4, 2003

Subject: Death of Michael DeSisto, DeSisto School, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

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 for him.

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 years.

  1. Michael felt it was important for students to know that he would not give up on them, nor would he support their failure. He would patiently wait to help a student work through a problem; while reassuring them that they could solve the problem and return to school with success.
  2. 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 easy to 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 change. He was a true advocate for their child.
  3. Michael believed every child had the possibility of insight and strength, and beauty and fulfillment. He never thought a student was expendable or the struggle with a student less than valuable.
  4. Michael understood the value of boundaries, structure, and even that awful word "no."
  5. Michael 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.
  6. One 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. He was often misunderstood in this regard as many people found it hard to stop activity, take time out, and not penalize themselves or be penalized by others.
  7. 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.
  8. Unlike so many programs dealing with adolescents, Michael insisted that the school program with its strong emotional 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!

Robert Kantar
Educational Consultant

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