She changed women’s lives.
Shirley Michaelsen wasn’t just a teacher to thousands of women in the Spokane area.
She was a role model and a source of strength. She helped them find jobs, listened to their troubles, lent them money for books, baby sitters - sometimes even rent.
Michaelsen was one of two women who established almost all of the women’s programs in Spokane.
She died Sunday of a heart attack, with a to-do list at her bedside. She was 79.
Hundreds came to Spokane Falls Community College on Saturday to remember Michaelsen, a modern pioneer who broke down barriers for thousands of women. With laughter and tears, her friends and former students recalled details of her life and praised her legacy.
“She was the most positive person,” said Brenda VonBrach, who met Michaelsen 21 years ago. “She was so enthusiastic and motivated, always learning and always sharing.”
Michaelsen was a housewife who returned to college after raising her daughters in Cheney. She was a speech instructor at Spokane Community College who later coordinated the district’s Women’s Continuing Education Program.
Along with the late Betty Hammond, Michaelsen founded the Displaced Homemaker Center in 1979 and was executive dean of the Institute for Extended Learning until the late ‘80s.
She was a “one-woman women’s movement” long before it began, said her friend, G. Don Gilmore, pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church.
Michaelsen was a visionary who got things done, friends said. She told everyone to “live life to its fullest.”
“Nobody did it better than my Mom,” said her daughter, Gail Nelson.
An antique collector who loved to travel, Michaelsen surrounded herself with beautiful things. She loved her home. She sewed, painted, made fudge for co-workers.
Yet, beneath her style and elegance, the former Crescent Department Store model who taught etiquette classes was the kind of woman who “rolled up her sleeves to get to work,” Gilmore said.
“She was a tough, determined, resilient and powerful human being.”
Despite her busy schedule, she always made time for people. Getting her from one place to another was often a challenge to the people she was with, said Jan Polek, who spoke on behalf of Michaelsen’s friends and colleagues from the community colleges. Everyone wanted to talk to her, and Michaelsen would stop to give them a hug, Polek said.
She was also selfless, family and friends say. Despite her problems with diabetes, she never talked about her own health. During a bus trip to Seattle, she gave her sandwich away to a hungry passenger even though she needed to keep her own blood sugar up.
She was quick to ask about others and shift the attention away from her. A few days before she died, she asked doctors and interns how they were doing, and if they liked their work at the hospital. She put her own pain and weariness aside.
People didn’t have enough words to describe Michaelsen at Saturday’s memorial.
Her granddaughter, Heidi Nelson, said: “I love her and I miss her and she was beautiful.”