May 3, 2015
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Profile: Just Call Michel

People and causes to promote? Michel Doherty has the wisdom and connections to make things happen in Lee County.

Alex Stafford

 

Want to run for public office? Go see Michel. Stuck in your career? See Michel. Need to spread the word about a new initiative, idea, innovation? Michel.

Because if Michel Doherty, Lee County’s networker extraordinaire, thinks your work has merit, she’ll open her Rolodex and link you with the people who’ll push you ahead. If you need advice, she’ll dip into her trove of experiences and guide you in the direction she thinks is best. Especially if you are a woman. Doherty, who jackhammered her own “cement ceilings” as a younger woman, has a particular passion for helping her gender advance.

“If you are planning to run for office, you want her blessing or to at least ask for it. If you don’t have it, good luck,” says state Rep. Dane Eagle, who was elected in 2012, his first run for office. Doherty served on his steering committee.

She doesn’t wait for people to come to her; Doherty’s mind starts churning any time she sees a matter that needs addressing—whether a gap that must be met or like-minded people who ought to be working together rather than in isolation.

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*

Doherty has won numerous awards—PACE Center Grande Dame, Lee County Citizen of the Year, the Lee Republican Women’s Club Soaring Eagle Award, the American Biographical Institute list of 2,000 Notable American Women. But she holds no position normally associated with power brokers—no fancy job title (she’s retired), no political office, no major corporate board. She’s comfortable but hardly rich.

Doherty is 89 years old.

What makes people seek her, oracle-like, is her wisdom, culled over a lifetime that ranges from Broadway dancer and “Copa girl” to wife of Philadelphia restaurateur to rape victim, widow, single mother, alcoholic, college student, hospital executive, community activist and political insider.

“I admire that she is able to see talent in people and cultivate it to help them be the best they can be,” says Caira Everly, 23, one of the many women who’s been taken under Doherty’s wing. “That’s what I want to be able to do.”

*

There are moving boxes scattered throughout Doherty’s canal-front Cape Coral home of some 30 years. She apologizes for the disarray. She’s recently decided to downsize to a condo at Sandoval. Her son, Michael Rodstein, is busy sorting, packing, purging and remarking good-humoredly that if his mother doesn’t start declining social engagements, she’s never going to get out of there.

To understand why people seek her out, it’s important to know her biography. Doherty ditched her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., in her late teens, moved (with her parents’ blessing) to New York City, enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and took up residency at a women’s hotel.

She landed a job with a modeling agency, but work was scarce. So, when her roommate, a dancer, suggested Doherty accompany her to a Broadway audition, Doherty went along, hoping for a steady gig.

“I was adventurous, so I said, ‘OK, let’s go,’” she remembers. The show, unfortunately, was a flop, but it led to other opportunities—as a dancer at the Copacabana and Latin Quarters and the 500 Club, where she performed with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

Doherty fell in love with a restaurateur, “Big Bill” Rodstein. He owned a couple of high-end establishments in Philadelphia and hobnobbed with the likes of Frank Sinatra.

Her performing days ended with her marriage.

“You didn’t go out to work in those days. If you went to work and you weren’t a professional, a doctor, an attorney, etc., they thought your husband couldn’t support you. They didn’t think of careers for women at all.”

She kept busy, though, raising sons Bill and Michael, and volunteering for civic groups such as a Philadelphia children’s hospital.

Cancer cut the marriage short. Doherty watched her husband’s 220-pound frame shrink to 150 pounds.

“He just wasted away right before our eyes,” she remembers. Her sons were 14 and 7. She was in her early 40s.

That loss was intense enough on its own, but Doherty suffered from an old, festering wound. Years before her husband’s death, she was raped at gunpoint in her car, her 18-month-old in the backseat.

Police largely brushed her off.

“It was so discouraging and destructive emotionally,” she says. “Nobody even thought of giving rape cases therapy. You were just expected to go on.”

The loss of her husband, the unresolved trauma, the haunting questions of what to do next overwhelmed her. She started drinking.

“At that time, they didn’t accept that women had alcohol problems. I lived in the dark ages,” she says. But her sister-in-law confronted her. “I hated her for it at the time, but I am grateful for her.”

Doherty found a good therapist, and figured out a good strategy: Get moving. Get busy. Get over yourself.

She went to college, earned a degree in psychiatry and went into the rehabilitation industry that had reversed her course.

She started as a therapist and then worked as a clinical director. An executive at First Hospital Corporation recognized her talent and ordered her back to school for a master’s degree so he could promote her to administrator. She completed it while working and raising her sons, who, according to Michael Rodstein, still commanded plenty of her attention.

“I knew what I wanted to obtain and what was required, and I knew it was harder for women. I was not going to fail,” she says. “I always wanted to make sure I could do whatever was given to me—and more.”

She believes she was the first female hospital administrator in Pennsylvania. She used her influence and personal experience to re-think women’s substance-abuse treatment.

“When I went in the field, I made sure women had different treatment than men. There are similarities in certain things, but their issues are totally different, and if you didn’t deal with those issues you couldn’t make the changes that were necessary,” Doherty says.

Doherty came to Cape Coral in 1984 to run The Cloisters, a rehabilitation center on Pine Island. She remained until her retirement in 1990.

Her ceiling-shattering career is one reason women seek her out—and one reason she doles out tough love to move them ahead.

“When I work with women, I get this irritation when I hear, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ … You are talking to the wrong person. I was a widow, I overcame alcoholism, I had two children to raise, and I ran two hospitals at the same time. So don’t tell me you can’t do something,” she says.

Then she adds, more gently, “I think they need that touch of reassurance—that, yes, you can do it.”

*

It’s a Friday night at an Estero country club, and Doherty is awaiting one of her political protégés, state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who is campaigning for the U.S. House of Representatives seat vacated by Trey Radel.

Doherty is the first person the senator greets.

“Michel is a strong believer in women supporting other women and in the value of believing in yourself. I’ve watched her push folks beyond what was comfortable and push for new opportunities, either through a new career path or public service,” Benacquisto says.

Doherty watches the senator’s brief remarks to the crowd and nods her approval.

“I’ve been with her since minute one. I met her and saw she had the strength, and she had that fire in her belly,” Doherty says.

She’s been doing this for years: spotting talent and inspiring people to run. She backed her first candidates years ago in Pennsylvania, when she persuaded two talented women to run for office in a state that had virtually no female elected officials. They both won.

“What is the matter with us women? If we don’t get behind women and encourage them do this, then we are going to be stuck our whole lives,” she says. “We should be making the laws, too. They affect us.”

Politics, though, comprises only one portion of Doherty’s networking web.

Two years ago, The PACE Center for Girls, a specialized public high school for at-risk girls, named Doherty a “Grand Dame.” Doherty was pleased with the honor, but she’s not one for merely accepting ceremonial titles.

She thought the Dames could use their clout to do more for these troubled teens. What good, she wondered, would their careful high school instruction do if they had no post-graduation opportunities?

“You instruct them, you inspire them and then, when they are 18, 19 years old and they graduate, where do they go? Back to that same environment?” Doherty asks. She proposed that the Dames establish a scholarship fund for college or trade school.

She reached into her network and quickly found interest from longtime friends at Hodges University, which she and her second husband had long supported.

“There is no selfishness in what she does,” says Phil Memoli, Hodges’ vice president of advancement. “She wants to do it all in the best interest of Lee County.”

*

One of her recent pet projects sends her back into a familiar subject—patient care—but in an entirely different context. Through her involvement with Impact Initiative, a group of 250 influential local women (and a few men) working on behalf of the Lee Memorial Health System Foundation, Doherty met Cape Coral Hospital Chief Administrative Officer Scott Kashman, who is transforming the hospital into an “Optimal Healing Environment,” a place that supports holistic healing and healthy lifestyles.

“When I heard about him, I wondered, ‘Where have you been for the last 30 years?’” Doherty says. Healthy choices are why, at 89, she still stands with a dancer’s posture and maintains the social calendar of a teenager.

She again began reaching out, connecting Kashman with a local organic farmer to supply his cafeteria with homegrown foods and introducing his goals to state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is trying to promote Florida-grown produce.

And when she wants to meet with people, she’ll often invite them for lunch at the hospital—her way of furthering the cause.

“I go there and meet them there—it’s spreading the word to the people. They are amazed at the changes,” she says.

Doherty says her parents taught her the value of service to others as a child. Now, it’s what fuels her as an adult.

“It keeps me alive,” she says. “I don’t want to get the point where I can’t do something, where I can’t make a difference. I wake up every morning and I’m happy to be alive and know that I can do something for someone today.”

 

The Wisdom of Michel Doherty

On Aging

• “I don’t let age define me. … You have great memories and I think you have to have those great memories. But you have to stay current. And you have to interact with people. You learn so much from them. You exchange so much, and it keeps you alive. It keeps you in tune with what’s happening. You don’t get stuck in time.”

On Women’s Development

• “Women today, they have so many more opportunities but they limit themselves. … Some of them don’t want to move from their environments. They don’t want to move out of Fort Myers or Cape Coral. I tell them this is the time to experience what it’s like somewhere else. You can always come back.”

On Community Activism

• “My parents taught me that you are here to help others. My mother would always say if we were being grumpy about something or dissatisfied about something, ‘Go out and help someone else.’”

• “After I retired, I played golf. I traveled a lot. But after a while I said, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ There’s nothing substantive. Maybe I should do something to help other people. People have helped me along the way. Let me give it back.”

 

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