Michael Litfin, who helped inspire and educate children about live theater for 31 years, died Friday night at Stanford Hospital where he had been undergoing chemotherapy for stomach cancer. He was 63.
The death of Litfin, the longtime assistant director of the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, shocked and saddened the local theater community.
"His mother and brother were at his side and his room was full of cards, pictures and warm wishes from his friends," a friend, Katherine Govea Saunders, said in an e-mail to friends notifying them of Litfin's death. "The world has lost a great man, but we are buoyed by the love we felt from Michael this past week as well as the entire Theatre community."
Supporters of the 76-year-old Children's Theatre had been already reeling since Jan. 24, when the city abruptly closed the theater and placed four full-time staff members, including Litfin, on administrative leave while police investigate potential financial crimes at the theater.
The theater has since reopened, but the staff remained on leave as of Monday.
Litfin was placed on leave the day before he began intensive therapy for his cancer treatment. He told the Weekly at the time that he was angry about the police investigation and had hired an attorney.
Litfin directed or co-directed more than 250 Children's Theatre shows and was involved in theater programs that included more than 1,000 children annually.
In addition to directing, Litfin authored or co-authored more than 25 plays and musicals.
He helped developed the theater's summer Conservatory program, its Second Saturday program and Imagination Station, a local cable TV show produced entirely by kids.
He also preserved theater history with newspaper clippings and a list of performers for all the shows.
He was working at the time of his death on the Kindertransport Project, a play being written by students about Jewish children being transported for safety in England during World War II.
"I've known Michael for 28 years, and I don't think many people understand the depth of his accomplishments," Richard James, the director of the city's Community Services Department, said. "Yes, he was a teacher, mentor and stage director, but he was also an outstanding playwright, a jack-of-all-trades theatrical, and our local historian."
According to his family, he received "an outpouring of love and appreciation" in his final days from theater staff, alumni and families. One letter praised him for his "deep humanity in providing a haven for so many of us growing up."
He was surprised by the outpouring, his family said, noting that he always thought of himself as more of a curmudgeon.
Litfin was born and raised in Milaca, Minn., the oldest of three sons. His love of the theater began when he was a teenager, putting on shows he wrote with a friend.
He graduated from St. Cloud State College in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in theater. He then served for two years in the U.S. Navy and worked briefly for railroad companies before earning his master's degree in theater administration from California State University at Fresno.
Litfin had touched many lives during his years with Children's Theatre, and his former students reached out to him in return, in his final days.
"Michael was a father to many of us, and a few of us actually told the nurses we were his daughters just to get in to see him," Jenny Brown posted on Palo Alto Online's community forum, Town Square. "Yes, we did get some odd looks."
Others, including parents and past and present performers, expressed their gratitude for his efforts and the difference he had made in their lives.
"I can't even begin to quantify all the life lessons Michael taught me," TV, stage and movie actor Assaf Cohen wrote. "I do know, however, that thousands of fortunate children lucky enough to have been directed by Pat and Michael -- myself included -- benefit immensely for the rest of their lives." Cohen appeared in the movie "Flightplan" and is part of the cast of the new TV show "Knight Rider." He also is a recurring guest star on the TV show "Entourage."
But some who posted comments on Town Square were angry about the police investigation into the theater's finances.
"Though Michael spent his final days surrounded by the many friends who loved him, his death was undoubtedly hastened by the callous and insensitive way this police investigation has been -- and is being -- handled," Jane Marcus, a 30-year resident, wrote.
Mayor Larry Klein highlighted Litfin's enduring legacy in the lives of Palo Alto children Monday.
"Michael was the assistant director of the Children's Theatre. A more appropriate title would have been 'Inspirational Mentor in Theatre and Life,'" Klein said in an e-mail to the Weekly. "As with all great mentors he brought passion and discipline to his work. The lives of several generations of Palo Alto children were enriched by Michael's enthusiasm for theater and, even more importantly, by his helping them realize that to achieve a goal one must work hard and in the right way.
"We have been privileged to have Michael teaching our children. Palo Alto will miss him."
Litfin is survived by his parents, Thomas and Lela Litfin, his brothers James and Robert, and their families.
A private funeral service will be held Feb. 8.
A community celebration of Litfin's life will be held Feb. 17 at the Children's Theatre.
Contributions, in lieu of flowers, may be sent to the Michael Litfin Memorial Fund, in care of Friends of Children's Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94303.