Longtime Grand Hotel Owner R. Daniel Musser Dies at 80
By Bob Berg
Grand Hotel Chairman Emeritus R. D. (Dan) Musser, Jr., under whose guidance the iconic hotel doubled both its size and the length of its season and achieved world class status, passed away Saturday in Lansing. He was 80. The cause of death was congestive heart failure.
Musser was a part of Grand Hotel for more than 60 years, starting work there as a college student in 1951, when the hotel was owned by his uncle, W. Stewart Woodfill He became president of the hotel in 1960 and then purchased it with his wife, Amelia, in 1979.
Grand Hotel celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2012 and this year marks the family’s 80th year of stewardship for the hotel.
When he first went to the hotel in 1951, it had about 200 rooms, was open from July 4 through Labor Day, and had an interior that looked pretty much like any other hotel or motel in the world. In the intervening years the hotel has expanded to 385 rooms, the season now extends from the beginning of May to the end of October, and the interior has been completely redesigned.
Mr. Musser began a complete makeover of the hotel in the 1970s, bringing in Carleton Varney, the president and owner of Dorothy Draper Design in New York. Working together, they transformed the hotel into a bright, summery atmosphere with no two rooms alike and a routine occupancy rate of more than 95 percent.
“When I took over, we had about 120 rooms that shared a bath, which could cause real problems,” Mr. Musser once said. “If you were in one of those rooms, you could lock the guests in the other room out of the bathroom. People would come to the desk complaining they couldn’t get into the bathroom, which obviously was a problem. We got rid of the last rooms with adjoining baths about 1970.”
Mr. Musser said the decision to lengthen the season was made the year he became president of the hotel in 1960.
“John F. Kennedy was running for president and he came to the Island on Memorial Day weekend to meet with Governor Williams at the Governor’s residence to ask for his support,” he said. “It was a beautiful day, a beautiful weekend, and the downtown was busy, but we weren’t open. I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ That was when we started figuring out how to lengthen the season.”
Mr. Musser was a long-time advocate of protecting Mackinac Island’s unique environment, including serving more than 30 years as chairman of the city’s Board of Public Works. Under his guidance, the Island built a state-of-the-art water supply system that uses a cutting edge microfiltration process and an equally modern wastewater treatment plant that meets or exceeds federal guidelines. Mr. Musser also was instrumental in having the Island close and cap its landfill in 1991. All non-recyclable waste is hauled to a state-approved landfill on the mainland.
Mr. Musser was known for close attention to detail in the operation of Grand Hotel. One of his rituals was a room by room tour of the hotel on the day before it opened for the season to spot any last minute problems. He also was known in the hotel for his hand-written notes to employees, sometimes as many as 50 or 60 a day, pointing out items that needed immediate attention.
“This is a detail business,” he told a visiting reporter who had remarked that it seemed the hotel paid “an incredible attention to detail.”
In addition to Grand Hotel, Mr. Musser also had a passion for show dogs. He and Mrs. Musser reached the pinnacle of that world in 2010 when their Scottish Terrier, Sadie, earned “Best In Show” honors at the 134th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York in 2010. Sadie scored an unusual double win that year when she also was named “Dog of the Year’ by the American Kennel Club at its annual awards dinner.
Grand Hotel continues to be recognized in a variety of unique ways that underscore the status as a world class hotel that it achieved under Mr. Musser’s leadership. It is listed perennially as one of Travel & Leisure magazine’s Top 500 Hotels in the World and has been named a winner of the AAA Four Diamond Award for 18 consecutive years.
Eighty years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, at a time when all the nation’s banks had been closed, W. Stewart Woodfill was the sole bidder in a March 1933 auction to take the hotel out of receivership. R. D. Musser, Jr. was Mr. Woodfill’s nephew.
Robert Daniel Musser, Jr. was born in Circleville, Ohio, April 29, 1922, to Robert Daniel and Betty Woodfill Musser. He grew up on a small farm and raised purebred animals as a member of the local 4-H Club. Mr. Musser was a graduate of Dartmouth College and served in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer during the Korean War. He was highly respected in the hospitality industry and was a past Chairman of the American Hotel Association Resort Committee. He also was a member of the Tavern Club in New York City.
In addition to Mackinac Island, the Mussers had homes in Laingsburg and St. Croix, where he wintered for the past 20 years.
Musser is survived by his wife, Amelia, daughter Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie of Ann Arbor, daughter Margaret “Mimi” Cunningham of Mackinac Island, son R. D. Musser III and his wife Marlee Brown of Mackinac Island, and seven grandchildren.
A Funeral will be held Wednesday, April 17, at 10 a.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, with burial at a later date on Mackinac Island.The family is asking that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the Mackinac Island Community Foundation Library Fund.