In the late ’70s, our lives converged in Aspen, where I was escaping as a suburban matron from Santa Barbara and Michelle was following The Grateful Dead from New York. Our conversations started at The Aspen Club, where we both worked. Having had a difficult childhood, she was looking for a mother figure and chose me. My nest was emptying, and as she was between the ages of my two daughters, the fit was right.

Michelle brought street wisdom to my conventional small-town upbringing; I talked to her about etiquette and how the New York approach didn’t always work. After a year of living together, she began to create an independent life, having obtained a good job and a comfortable apartment. This all changed when she had a ski accident on February 14, 1983. The resulting T6 spinal cord injury left her a paraplegic with a severely injured left arm and hand.

Michelle Galler
Courtesy Photo

Michelle began to rebuild her life at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. Even though she was confined to a wheelchair and needed assistance every day in getting showered, dressed, etc., she hadn’t lost her work ethic or her sense of adventure. As soon as she was able, she started to travel again, first to Aspen and then to Santa Barbara, where I had returned to finish a degree. I was able to create an accessible home for her, which gave her an opportunity to become involved in the community. Here, she was able to learn to drive with her disabilities and had a vehicle designed for her needs. Once she had a van, she was off and “running.”

While in Santa Barbara, Michelle enrolled in an adaptive-riding program, now the Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center. She regained confidence not only in horse riding but in herself. There, she met Julie Perez, who introduced her to a group that did handicapped scuba diving. Michelle became a Founding Member of HSA, the Handicapped Scuba Association, and developed a personal relationship with Jean-Michel Cousteau and his family. She was extremely proud of the film she produced with Cousteau in Fiji, To Fly in Freedom.

As much as she loved Santa Barbara, she felt a need to remain close to her doctors and the services of Craig hospital. Michelle made her permanent home in Denver but made the trip to Santa Barbara often.

Santa Barbara friends may remember her with Duchess, her German shepherd. As a puppy, Duchess tested Michelle’s strength and patience until she was able to be trained by Lt. David Inglis of the Ventura Police Dog Academy. When Michelle decided to live in France, Duchess became a “French shepherd.” Not only did Michelle learn to speak French, but Duchess and she charmed the locals, as well as her many visitors from abroad.

Enthused about the opportunities for herself and others with disabilities, she dove into arranging trips and creating extraordinary experiences all over the world. Diving and helping to train instructors, Michelle visited Russia, Japan, Israel, Egypt, France, and Australia. This was done all from the confines of her wheelchair, with the normal function of only one arm. As an advocate for the disabled, Michelle participated in the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and helped to certify accessibility for major airlines and cruise ships. As a community activist, Michelle organized around environmental issues in the Denver region. Fond of horses and their historical importance in Denver, she raised public interest and money to keep the Mounted Sheriff posse on their horses.

Michelle, young at heart, never missed a fair and especially loved the Renaissance Fair. In Denver, she would attend the Film Society, the symphony, and theater productions, and she took classes at Denver University. When in Santa Barbara, Michelle took part in as many activities as possible. She abhorred wasting a moment of “up time” and got out regardless of the weather. Michelle remained active even after entering Hospice Care, although she was contending with pain and long nursing days before she could get into her wheelchair. Not wanting to loose her ability to be in charge of her life, Michelle chose to leave this planet, February 16, 2012. She was attended by me and five other longtime friends as she went into a gentle sleep.

Always creating an extended family — which in Denver includes Jim Leventhal, Donna Wegner, Teresa Atkins, Lisa Lundgren, and Alex Puento — locally, Michelle considered Tracy Rochestie, Serena Crowley, McKenna Crowley, Robin Macdougal, Tamlorn Chase, and Theo Crowley her family. Other local friends include Jean-Michel Cousteau, Nan Marr, Jeff Neely, and the Zeke Perez family. She is also survived by her brother, Dr. Robert Galler of New York, and his family. Contributions in her memory may be made to the following: Craig Hospital, 3425 S. Clarkson St., Englewood, CO 80113; and Ocean Futures Society, 325 Chapala St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.


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