Editorial: Entrepreneur Michael Kittredge’s extended legacy

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Many people who have been in the Pioneer Valley for a while are familiar with Michael Kittredge’s amazing success story. As a high school student in Holyoke in 1969, he melted some crayons and made a candle for his mother; neighbors admired it and he and two friends began making more to sell.

They opened the Yankee Candle shop in South Hadley, moved it to South Deerfield and, in 1998, Kittredge sold 90 percent of the business’ shares to a private New York equity company for $500 million.

Yankee Candle, which sells its products nationwide and in nearly 50 countries, was sold again in 2013 for $1.75 billion and its South Deerfield complex has become a multi-million dollar tourist destination.

In 2010, Kittredge helped his son Michael III start a similar operation, The Shoppes at Kringle Candle, which is booming in Bernardston.

That is an impressive legacy in the business world.

And now, a wrenching personal experience is serving to extend Kittredge’s influence in another area — health care.

Kittredge, 65, suffered a debilitating stroke five years ago and, his family and friends say, music, a lifelong love of his, continues to help him make a substantial recovery, despite a grim prognosis.

“Music therapy has been the most consistent therapy that Mike has participated in, so he enjoys it and I think he feels accomplished by doing it,” says his ex-wife Lisa Kittredge.

To make similar therapy available to others who could benefit from it, Lisa Kittredge founded an advocacy organization, Sounds of Recovery. It already has funded a pilot music therapy program at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton and is working on starting one at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. It also has created an educational website, MusicTherapyTales.com, featuring stories illustrating the benefits of music therapy.

“Music is a really powerful way to bring people out and have them connect,” says Marcus Soifer, a part-time music therapist at Cooley Dickinson. “It is the universal language.”

Kittredge, a drummer before his stroke, can play now with just one hand and foot, but he practices every day and was onstage at his home in Leverett earlier this month with a group of musician friends, keeping the beat for the band during a fundraiser for Sounds of Recovery.

While he lay in a coma in intensive care five years ago, his right side immobile and doctors predicting he would never be able to swallow solid food again, Kittredge’s friends appeared at his bedside with guitars. Lisa Kittredge, then his wife, brought him an iPod so he could listen to his favorite bands. When his loved ones saw him mouthing the words that a friend was singing to him, they saw it as a turning point.

From then on, music was part of his therapy, from helping him exercise and strengthen his throat muscles to serving as a motivator as he learned to walk again. He used music to communicate some of his basic needs when words failed him.

Kittredge has surpassed all expectations in his recovery. Though no one is claiming that music alone accounts for that progress, Lisa Kittredge is convinced that music played a major role. While Kittredge was able to hire his own private music therapist, she wants others of lesser means to be given the chance to tap into music’s healing potential.

“It feels good to spend the energy on something like this,” she says.

Sounds of Recovery, which is overseen by a four-member board of directors, donated about $30,000 for the music therapy program at Cooley Dickinson. It helps psychiatric patients, who often struggle with feelings of isolation.

By holding fundraising events, like this month’s show — the third annual concert — and speaking out about the inspirational story of Michael Kittredge’s last five years, Lisa and others close to him are providing a compelling public service.