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Michael Downing, whose books illuminated his illness and the lives of others, dies at 62

Mr. Downing, equally adept at fiction and nonfiction, wrote nine books. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file)
Mr. Downing, equally adept at fiction and nonfiction, wrote nine books. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file)

At 45, Michael Downing learned that his excellent health was a mirage, obscuring a genetic defect that probably had led to his father’s death from a heart attack at 44.

The first symptom of his demise, he learned, would be abrupt and final. A series of doctors “leaned a little forward in their chairs and said the words ‘sudden death’ to me,” he later recalled.

For some, such news might prompt fear or despair. For Mr. Downing, who was 62 when he died of cancer on Feb. 9, the experience inspired another book in a wide-ranging writing life that included teaching at Tufts University.

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Endlessly curious and equally adept at fiction and nonfiction, he wrote nine books that included studies of a Zen Buddhist community in San Francisco and daylight saving time, and novels that drew from his experience as a gay man and a teacher of creative writing.

It followed, then, that his new, arduous path — a heart pacemaker went awry, a staph infection hobbled him — would lead to arguably his most personal writing: “I wrote ‘Life with Sudden Death’ to answer a simple question: Who has the authority to tell the story of your life?”

And as with life itself, health care was not without complications.

“As I entered the strange and secretive world of modern medicine, I really thought I was simply choosing to prevent my sudden death,” he later wrote.

“But the medical intervention to prevent my sudden death almost killed me — more than once. Five years, four surgeries, and three implanted devices later, I see that I was effectively adopted by a close-knit family of genetic researchers, clinicians and surgeons, and medical-device manufacturers. I knew I was dependent on them, and I soon learned that they were not entirely dependable. But did I really trust my own version of the story?”

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Ultimately, he could be confident in this and the other narratives he crafted because of his approach to writing. Mr. Downing was a meticulous researcher, and in grammar’s structure he saw rules that liberated, rather than confined.

A creative writing teacher for some 20 years at Tufts University, he previously taught at Wheelock College and had been a popular instructor for Teachers as Scholars, a Cambridge-based program that offers professional development seminars to K-12 teachers.

“He loved teaching, and he really managed that balance between teaching and writing in the most healthy, complementary way of anyone I know. These things weren’t in tension with each other,” said his longtime friend Philip Bennett, an editor at the PBS documentary series “Frontline.”

Mr. Downing “had this special idea of the classroom as a kind of sacred space,” Bennett said. “That sounds kind of silly in some ways, but he thought of classrooms as places where things happened that don’t happen in the outside world, where confidences were formed and things were shared.”

At Teachers as Scholars, “he was a dazzling instructor,” said Henry Bolter, the program’s founder and director.

“Michael taught not only writing, he taught a way to be,” Bolter said. “And that was remarkable.”

Mr. Downing “really believed the classroom was the place for, as he called it, transformative change,” Bolter said, and he led classes that were “just alive with energy and sort of crackling with joy.”

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Mr. Downing was a dynamic teacher whose classes crackled with energy, said colleagues. (David L. Ryan/Globe staff/2005)
Mr. Downing was a dynamic teacher whose classes crackled with energy, said colleagues. (David L. Ryan/Globe staff/2005)

Building communities among friends in the same way he built trust in classrooms, Mr. Downing was renowned for spending the whole day cooking when he and his longtime partner, Peter Bryant, hosted a gathering.

His gifts with language were as present in conversation as they were on the page.

Books were his preferred form, but the time constraints of creative writing classes lend themselves to assigning short stories. He and his friend and former Tufts creative writing colleague Michelle Blake, a poet and writer, once realized neither had actually penned a short story. They decided to each write one and share their efforts only with each other.

When the time arrived to swap stories, “I said, ‘I’m afraid it’s so bad you won’t want to be my friend anymore.’ And he said, ‘That option has expired,’ " she recalled. “It was so beautiful. He had this tremendous generosity and loyalty to people. If you mattered to him, you mattered to him.”

The youngest of nine siblings, Michael Bernard Downing was born on May 8, 1958, in Pittsfield, where his father, John F. Downing, was a highly regarded leader of business organizations who died when Michael was 3.

Mr. Downing’s mother, Gertrude Martin Downing, was the guidance counseling secretary at St. Joseph’s High School in Pittsfield.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University, where “he was one of these dazzling talents,” Bennett said. “He decided really early in life that he was going to be a writer. He had the discipline and the talent to do that right from college, and as a result, lived a kind of simple life in a lot of ways. Writing was at the heart of his professional ambitions.”

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Mr. Downing’s novels included the 1997 bestseller “Perfect Agreement” and its sequel, 2019′s “Still in Love,” which was his last book. His novel “Breakfast with Scott” was adapted into a movie that marked the first time a National Hockey League team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, allowed its logos and uniforms to be used in a gay-themed movie.

“Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time,” published in 2005, turned him into a go-to media interviewee whenever discussions arose about dispensing with the practice.

Mr. Downing and Bryant, who had been together since 1982, met in Harvard Square.

“We struck up a conversation and had a cup of coffee. I knew in our first conversation that he was so thoughtful and inquisitive about life. It became a lifelong conversation,” Bryant said.

“Michael really encouraged people in a way that was not just patting you on your back. He understood and believed in them,” added Bryant, who is retired from his position as chief operating officer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “And he certainly was that for me. He was my biggest champion in what I do for work.”

They married in 2013 and divided time between their home in Cambridge and a place in Ipswich that Mr. Downing took it upon himself to fix up, learning the skills of renovation.

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“Nothing ever intimidated him,” Bryant said. “He would look at a particular problem and say, ‘There’s a way to get at this.’ "

Services were private for Mr. Downing, who in addition to Bryant leaves two brothers, Jack of Pittsfield and Joseph of Westborough; and two sisters Elaine Hale and Marie van Luling.

In a 2009 essay for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Mr. Downing examined the lessons his health travails had taught.

He recalled arriving one day at Tufts and kneeling beside his car to, in his weakened state, struggle to loop his book bag’s strap over his shoulder. As an autumn breeze dried the sweat of exertion, he turned his gaze to the world around him and was for a moment transformed.

“I looked up at the true-blue autumn sky through the limbs of a midlife maple, its still-green leaves quivering like jazz hands,” Mr. Downing wrote.

“Maybe life is not a lesson, or maybe I am a bad student,” he added, “but I knew nothing but how sweet it is to catch an unexpected breeze.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.