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Community stalwart, mentor and helping hand for those in need Michel Doherty dies at 96

Her help and support brought many individuals and their families a hand dealing…

Community stalwart, mentor and helping hand for those in need Michel Doherty dies at 96 1

Michel Doherty was the kind of community force that most communities can only dream about.

There was so much to Doherty, who died Sunday at 96, that went into that force.

She was a dancer on Broadway in her past, friends with many famous people, a mentor to many area women such as former state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, she was a funder of scholarships to those who were trying to beat addiction and she served as solid support for many others.

“I was with her when she passed,” Benacquisto said. “From a professional standpoint, she ran The Cloisters (a Pine Island addiction center) for some time. Through that she touched so many lives … not just the folks who needed treatment themselves and who successfully completed treatment and went on to beat addiction, she helped families heal and grow through the treatment of addiction.”

Benacquisto said that aspect of her friend alone was enough to leave a positive impact on the area.

She lauded friends Jeanne Sweeney and Christina Cook who were also critical in the care of Doherty during her final years.

Benacquisto also lauded Doherty’s work mentoring so many local women, including herself.

“She was strong, and she would tell you what she thought, without reserve” Benacquisto said. “But, she was just a strident advocate of women being involved and women being at the table when important decisions were made about them.”

Benacquisto named some of the things that Doherty gave her energies to, including the Pace Center for Girls, where she provided funds for a scholarship in her name, and Hope Hospice, where she helped with the development and the dream of the Cape Coral Hospital House, where she died.

“She was a force of nature, really,” she said.

An article highlighting her life in 2014 in The News-Press described her thusly: “She has danced under the brightest lights of Broadway shows. She could call Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Betty Ford friends. She has been the advocate for young minds interested in big dreams, influencing the political careers of state Sen. Lizbeth Benacqusito, state Rep. Dane Eagle and Cape Coral Mayor Marni Sawicki. She loves her city of Cape Coral and has been active in many causes. She is a luminary extraordinaire.”

Doherty was raised in Buffalo, N.Y., and went on to a dancing and modeling career that started when she was 19 years old, taking her to New York City and then to Philadelphia, where she danced in shows that were either destined for the big stages of New York or closed a few weeks after they opened.  

She danced at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. She danced in the Latin Quarter. She worked with Martin and Jerry Lewis and a simple phone call from Sinatra, wherever he was opening a show, brought Doherty and her then husband, “Big Bill” Rodstein, to his house as guests.

Her charitable works began when she was young. Even as a dancer, then a wife and mother, she was drawn to charity work and helped raise enough money to build a wing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one of the leading facilities in the country.

Tragedy that befell her, her husband died, and she had a drinking problem, battling what she calls the disease of alcoholism.

“After I was a social drinker, I became a heavy drinker, then my husband died and my drinking got out of control,” Doherty said in that 2014 News-Press article. “I was forced to look at it because of my sister. At first, I denied I had a problem and then went for some treatment. But there was nothing for women, mostly men were sent to treatment.”

Because of those hardships, Doherty saw a need to help others. She went back to school, trained in psychiatry, earning a bachelor’s degree at the age of 52 and a master’s at age 55 from Lincoln University, the first degree-granting, historically black university in the U.S.

Doherty said she was expertly trained because most of her professors were Harvard and Yale graduates, but they were black and it was the ’70s, so many of them could not get jobs at traditionally white colleges. While getting her master’s, she continued to work at Horsham Clinic, a psychiatric hospital, getting the training that helped bring her to Pine Island.

She became executive director of The Cloisters addiction rehabilitation center on the island in 1971, treating well-known celebrities. It was an intense six-week program where families of substance abusers spent a week there, learning about addictions and how to deal with the person.

Doherty said she treated governors, country and western singers and other personalities. She got to know Betty Ford during her first year of sobriety.

She retired in 1990, but in many ways she was just getting started.

Her first project was Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve in Cape Coral, the only salt water preserve in the middle of a city. At the time, there were no funds to maintain the land, which was owned by the state but leased to the city. She went to work, talking with county commissioners. She was told there was no funding. That only stirred her more.

She explained the environmental significance of the property and convinced the tourism director to give the city $250,000 and an additional $250,000 the next year. She also helped persuade the county to give Cape Coral the land where significant military landmarks, like the Iwo Jima Memorial, now exist.

Doherty, who made her home in Cape Coral, leaves a son William and daughter-in-law Barbara Rodstein. A son Michael preceded her in death.


Connect with breaking news reporter Michael Braun: MichaelBraunNP (Facebook)@MichaelBraunNP (Twitter) or mbraun@news-press.com.

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