by Len Lear
If you happen to walk into the new Gallery on the Avenue, 8433 Germantown Ave., which started as a pop-up shop last fall but has evolved into a permanent art gallery, you will meet one of the most remarkable people in our community, if not the entire Delaware Valley. Michele Haines has a very calm, low-key, soft-spoken exterior, but her record in business and humanitarian work, her true north, bespeaks a python intensity.
On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the shop is overseen by the smiling visage of the beret-wearing Haines, 76, who is known by foodies as the founder/chef of Spring Mill Cafe in Conshohocken 40 years ago where the quiet, rural River Road meets Barren Hill Road. The bucolic building was once a general store that also served as the town post office when it was constructed in 1831.
Haines, whose son Ezra, 44, now runs the restaurant because of her own physical limitations, says modestly, “Ezra probably does a better job that I did, but I did have fun. My customers laughed with me, danced with me, even jumped up and down with me. I’m a performer, and I am still a clown, but I just can’t do the physical things I used to do.”
For the past 25 years Michele has had Lupus, a systemic auto-immune disease that occurs when a body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Inflammation caused by lupus can affect many different body systems, including the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart and lungs.
To make matters worse, in May of 2016 Michele was walking across the street at 3rd and South Streets (she had a green light) when a car turned the corner and ran right into her. Michele literally flew up in the air, according to witnesses, and landed hard on the pavement. She lay there motionless.
“I heard somebody say, ‘She’s dead,’” Haines recalled. “Then another lady said, ‘Don’t move.’ Luckily, that woman was a doctor. She proceeded to help me.” It took about 40 minutes for an ambulance to show up, which took Michele to Jefferson Hospital, where she stayed for one week. She suffered four fractured vertebrae, is still in pain and takes physical therapy treatments three times a week as well as acupuncture and medical marijuana in addition to heavy medication for the Lupus. She is no longer able to drive a car. The case is still being litigated.
“For three weeks I could not even remember what had happened, and the after-care was very bad,” said the 5-foot-2, 108-pound food maven. “I was supposed to have people come to help me with the shower and other basic things I could not do, but they never showed up. I lost so much, but I do not dwell on it. I dwell on the nicer parts of life … Unfortunately, when I travel, I have to take my body with me … But I want to inspire others who have had major setbacks to stay positive, laugh a lot and enjoy nature and all the other wonderful things that life still has to offer.”
Michele Haines was born in 1942 in the Touraine region of France on the border between Nazi occupation and the collaborating Vichy regime. In 1944, when her father was killed in an American bombing, she was found safe in his arms. Though she won scholarships to Radcliffe and Stanford, her family prohibited her from attending. When the chance to work as a United Nations translator surfaced, she capitalized on the opportunity and in 1961 moved to New York City.
But Michele disliked how the program “turned her into a machine.” She quit within five days and joined a federal program run out of Florida State University, training foreign language teachers for American high schools.
In the summer of 1963 the program sent her to Tallahassee, which she had never heard of until then. That same year she traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in civil rights marches. She was arrested twice, once because she sat next to a black friend in a restaurant and refused to move. On one occasion a man attacked her. She defended herself by picking up a nearby wooden stool. It was red by the end of the encounter.
“Because of what I learned as a small child from my family during World War II about the moral necessity to fight against injustice and other evils, I became involved in the civil rights movement after coming to this country,” explained Haines. “I did not go to the March on Washington in August, 1963, but I did go with a small group of people when Dr. Martin Luther King came out of jail in Montgomery, Alabama. As I later told my grandson, I got to talk to Dr. King. I drank some water with him and listened to him talk.”
The next stage of Michele’s career brought her to Providence, Rhode Island, where her fluency in French, German and English gained her acceptance into Brown University’s graduate-level Russian program.
That is where she met her husband-to-be of over 40 years, New Jersey native Arthur Carroll Haines, who at the time was an undergrad at Brown. In 1965, she joined the faculty of the Mary C. Wheeler High School, a Montessori school in Providence, RI, where she used her expertise to found a new language program: not German, French or Russian but Spanish.
A few years later, when her husband’s enrollment at the University of Pennsylvania brought Haines to Philadelphia, she joined the GFS faculty, where she taught French before founding its Spanish department. Arthur, a landscape architect and translator of several languages, died at 63 of esophageal cancer 15 years ago. In addition to Ezra, Michele has a son, Jason, 47, an engineer in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
It would take another article of this length to enumerate all of the charitable projects Michele has either initiated or been a significant part of over the years. Many involved travel to foreign countries, such as the founding of a hospital in Cambodia specifically to treat patients who has lost limbs after walking over hidden landmines. Michele helped raise funds and even find medical professionals to go to Cambodia and train staffers there.
The artists currently being represented at the Gallery on the Avenue are Christopher Ward, who specializes in bronze sculpture and handcrafted bronze tables, candlesticks and wall sconces; Judy McCabe Jarvis, a Springside School alumna who offers a wide range of colorful oil paintings and pastels, including portraits, landscapes and still lifes; and Noelle Wister, a classically trained portrait artist who also does landscapes, still lifes and grisalles (a method of painting in gray monochrome, typically to imitate sculpture).
More information about Spring Mill Café, 164 Barren Hill Rd. in Conshohocken, at www.springmill.com or 610-828-2550. As of this week’s deadline, the Gallery on the Avenue’s website is not yet up and running. The phone number is 215-740-6436. Hours are by appointment and Thursday, Friday and Saturday 1-5 p.m. The artists’ websites are: NoelleWister.com, ChristopherWardArt.com and JudyMcCabe.com.