Tribute to Michelle Gillett (1948-2016)

Michelle Gillett at the officeWords have failed me in the week since my dear friend Michelle Gillett passed away at her Berkshire home. How to craft a worthy tribute to a poet and writer whose own words have won awards? What could I add to the chorus of writerly voices that have so beautifully honored a beloved wife, mother, sister, friend, columnist, teacher and mentor?

Michelle and I were colleagues at The Women’s Times (the Berkshire-based monthly I published from 1993-2011) and, ironically, she was the person I had always turned to when I wasn’t sure what to say or how to say it. In response, she would propose a starting point or reframe the task, and then send me off, promising to edit whatever draft I brought back.

Yet even now, she prompts me. Shortly before she died, Michelle sent me a note, in which she recalled her fond memories of my son as a little boy at the office, and in my kitchen, in the early days of putting The Women’s Times together (or, TWT, as we called it.) What I want to share is a glimpse into those days, and her role in a publication that so many loved.

For nearly two decades, Michelle’s insightful writing, keen editorial eye and feminist voice profoundly influenced The Women’s Times. Early on, she served as guest editor of two issues focused on topics she cared deeply about—the education of girls and “a sense of place”—and both struck an equally resonant chord with readers. When she took the editorial helm in late 1995, Michelle revamped the magazine’s signature cover feature and added lighter fare to the mix, including a popular back page essay called A Musing. In later years, as contributing editor, she wrote regular features, profiles and arts coverage, while continuing to play an ongoing role in TWT’s editorial development.

Michelle’s love of literature, politics and gardening was woven throughout the magazine, as was her talent for alliterative titles. It was no accident that poetry rarely appeared in TWT. Anyone who knew Michelle knows how serious she was about poetry, and while she may have felt everyone “can” write poetry, she feared the consequences of opening up our mailbox to submissions. (Long before she shared this view, she did consent to having two of her own poems published; they appeared in our premiere.)

Along the way, Michelle generously coached dozens of writers, mentored younger editors and nurtured countless interns. With a substantial network in the Berkshires, she also brought new writers, photographers and illustrators (including her talented sister Gerry McElroy) into the fold. When it came to cultivating sources, Michelle always knew someone who knew someone and “gossip” (as in what’s-going-on-that’s-newsworthy) was a favorite email subject line between us.

Michelle embodied our mission to tell women’s stories, share resources, and bring women together in community. A deeply loyal friend and colleague, she was TWT’s most constant companion—and mine. I know I am lucky to have more than my share of memories of Michelle, and of her written words, and I will hold them all ever closer now. My dear friend may be gone from this world, but she will always be in my grateful, broken heart.

February 19, 2016

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