Michael Merritt Donovan of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Greenport, N.Y., died suddenly in the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 2022, at the age of 71. He was a loving husband and proud father of twins, a brother, a caring friend and a colleague.
Born the first of three children to Jean deNoyelles and Bill Donovan on Oct. 6, 1951, Michael lived the first year of his life in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Ocean Parkway. He was raised in Mount Lebanon, Pa., along with his two sisters, Jeanmarie and Suzy, until the family moved to Dresher, Pa. The Donovans spent summers in Greenport with their grandparents Capt. Harry Horton and Marguerite “Marge” Horton, whose family home they continue to live in and love.
Michael graduated from Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania, earned a B.A. from SUNY/Albany (after some fitful starts in other colleges) and later an M.A. and Ph.D in anthropology from New York University.
Early in life he was a bit of a wanderer. Michael’s hitchhiking adventures across the U.S., the Mideast, Africa and parts of Europe offered rich material that contributed to wild, often humorous stories and deep friendships, and later, these journeys likely fed his decision to study anthropology.
Prior to earning his doctorate, Michael worked as a cook in several restaurants (for a period cooking alongside Anthony Bourdain before he was famous) and later drew upon these skills, expressing his love of family and friends through nightly meals and occasional feasts. It was through his cooking that he wooed his then-girlfriend, Erica Herman, who became his wife of 26 years.
Michael had a capacity to listen with deep empathy and to discover underlying meanings and connections. His chosen field was cultural anthropology and he studied historical changes in Kipsigi land-use patterns in Kenya as the Kipsigi people were transitioning from pastoralists to tea farmers and other forms of cash cropping. His work captured the changes in cultural values and kinship that accompanied these economic transitions.
Michael was a founding partner of Practica Group and over the last 24 years he worked as a writer and consultant, taking a fresh look at the cultural spaces inhabited by categories, brands, products, services and institutions. He wrote extensively about changing ideas of community and pursued projects that allowed him to observe people and places transformed by technologies, consumption and political economies. Still, he always returned to Kenya for inspiration. A colleague described Michael as “formidable in both head and heart and he always brought both to any project.”
He took these skills as an anthropologist into his everyday life — bringing them to light at his children’s New York City schools as part of the School Leadership Team. It was in these meetings that he would magically use three words, “I wonder if … ,” gently nudging the tide of the committee. He would go on to say, “I just think it would be helpful if we thought about it differently” — words that helped to make great changes for the schools.
His life was spent with his children, wife, family and friends and he could often be found swimming in an inlet behind his Greenport house called Widow’s Hole. As provider and protector, Michael nurtured the idea of “home” as it was realized in his family.
Michael leaves behind his wife, Erica Herman, and their children, twins Harry Moses Herman Donovan and Willa Mae Herman Donovan of Brooklyn, N.Y.; his middle sister, Jeanmarie Hartung, brother-in-law Tom Hartung and their children and grandchildren; younger sister, Suzanne Donovan, brother-in-law Brian Armstrong; half-brothers, Tom Donovan and Jimmy Donovan; and aunt Patti Donovan and cousins.
Interment took place at Sterling Cemetery. Memorial donations may be made to Peconic Land Trust, Brooklyn Botanic Garden or the International Rescue Committee.
This is a paid notice.