Highly educated at a time when most women didn’t attend college, Goldie Michelson seemed to look into the future when she penned her master’s thesis 80 years ago. She wrote about Jews who came to the United States before World War II, but her observations about immigration would be just as at home in political debates today.
A pioneer since leaving Russia at the age of 2, Mrs. Michelson was 113 in May when she became the oldest living American. She died Friday in her Worcester home.
“It never occurred to me that I would live this long,” she told Clark University’s magazine in 2012, when she turned 110. “I just went on and on, and I’ve loved it.”
Her life spanned two world wars, 19 presidents, and much more. “The things she’s seen in her lifetime — penicillin, computers, cellphones, microwaves, everything,” said her granddaughter, Marilyn Melton.
None of those innovations really fazed Mrs. Michelson, said Melton, who added that “she would say, ‘It’s not what I’ve seen, it’s what I haven’t seen: Man’s inhumanity to man, why hasn’t that changed?’ ”
Mrs. Michelson graduated from Pembroke College, which later merged with Brown University, in 1924, and received a master’s in sociology from Clark University in 1936. She honed her strong sense of social justice during graduate school, her granddaughter said. That was clear in an abstract of her master’s thesis, “A Citizenship Survey of Worcester Jewry,” which looked at why Worcester’s older Jewish residents didn’t try to become US citizens.
“The attitude of America toward the ever increasing flow of immigrants to its shores has gradually changed from indifference to concern,” she wrote. “The problem, from a sociological point of view, seems to be whether or not so many diversified races can make for national solidarity. An answer is found in assimilation, not by force or coercion, but rather by guidance, understanding, and protection.”
Melton said her grandmother told the story of how after one class at Clark, her professor invited the students back to his house for coffee. All of her classmates were welcome except one: the only African-American. Mrs. Michelson decided to boycott the professor’s gathering and instead invited the black student to her house for coffee, Melton said.
“She wasn’t going to take no for an answer and she didn’t really care who was saying that,” said Dani Minsky, who is one of Mrs. Michelson’s two great-grandchildren. “She was going to do what she felt was best and what was right.”
Mrs. Michelson spent much of her life volunteering, often working with local Jewish organizations and helping to resettle Jewish immigrants, Melton said.
Living through almost the entire 20th century, and in particular watching the Holocaust from afar, shaped Mrs. Michelson’s desire to help others, Melton said. That worldview defined generations of her family. Minsky, who is 23, went to Clark, like her great-grandmother, and studied international development. She’s now working on a master’s in social work at Boston College. “I think she’s definitely made a very big impact on me,” Minsky said.
Mrs. Michelson also passed along an affinity for theater and the arts.
“Her main love, besides family, was theater,” said 84-year-old Renee Minsky, Mrs. Michelson’s daughter and only child. “That was something we always shared in one way or another.”
Mrs. Michelson acted and directed nearly all her life, her daughter said, and took her last turn as director when she was nearly 100, leading a pageant performance of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Her favorite playwright was Shakespeare, and until recently she would quote long passages of her favorite plays, such as “The Merchant of Venice,” in everyday conversation. Mrs. Michelson usually had something Shakespearean for “whatever happened to come up,” her daughter said.
Born Goldie Corash on Aug. 8, 1902, in a Russian city that is now part of Ukraine, Mrs. Michelson was 2 when she moved to Worcester with her mother and two brothers. They joined Mrs. Michelson’s father, who was running a dry goods store and had emigrated earlier.
After graduating from college, she was a social worker in Worcester, and went on to teach religious education and direct plays at a local synagogue. She married David Michelson, who was friends with one of her brothers. He was from New Jersey and had planned to leave Worcester until he met Goldie Corash. “He said when he saw me walk down the stairs he had to get to a phone, because his plans had changed. He knew he wasn’t going home,” she told Clark magazine.
Mr. Michelson, a businessman who developed medical office buildings, died in 1974.
With her husband, Mrs. Michelson had visited New York City regularly, sometimes attending multiple plays during weekend trips.
“We’d get a couple of modest tickets and see a matinee Saturday, another play Saturday night, and on Sunday morning we’d come home,” she told the Worcester Telegram in 2012.
They loved the theater so much that they decided to build one in their basement, complete with a raised stage and working lights. “She didn’t own a washer and dryer,” Melton said. “Her laundry room was a dressing room for the theater. It even had a gold star on the door.”
Mrs. Michelson “was a firecracker,” Melton added.
After her husband died, Mrs. Michelson endowed the Michelson Theater and the David and Goldie Michelson Drama Fund at Clark University.
Responding to the oft-asked question of how to live past 100, Mrs. Michelson told Clark magazine that walking was the secret of her own longevity. “I was a great walker — four or five miles every morning, weather permitting,” she said. “I never used a car if I could walk. One of the great joys of life was when I sold my car.”
Mrs. Michelson told Clark University’s magazine in the 2012 interview that she never smoked or drank, but she loved chocolate — “lots of chocolate.”
A graveside service for Mrs. Michelson will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday in B’nai B’rith Cemetery in Worcester.
Mrs. Michelson lived for 113 years and 335 days, and her age became a point of pride.
“She was very proud of it,” said her daughter, who recounted a time when Brown University sent Mrs. Michelson a letter that said she was one of the school’s oldest living graduates. At the time, only one graduate was older. “And she was kind of miffed,” her daughter said with a laugh.
From time to time, Minsky returns to the master’s thesis her great-grandmother wrote eight decades ago, and said it still inspires her.
“Reading that is so touching,” Minsky said. “It just makes me so thankful. To think, what a remarkable person she was, and I’m so proud to have her as my great-grandmother.”Reis Thebault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @reisthebault.