Musser Leaves Legacy of Service
At distant intervals on Mackinac Island, since the time of the British, a notable figure passes away and the Island pauses to reflect on accomplishments that have profoundly benefited the entire community. In the case of Grand Hotel’s Emeritus Chairman R. Daniel Musser, Jr., who died early Saturday, April 13, his successful efforts to preserve and promote the stately hotel benefited the entire Straits of Mackinac region. Grand Hotel, perhaps more than any building in Michigan, is a recognizable landmark throughout the country.
Mr. Musser was 80 years old when he succumbed to congestive heart failure in Lansing, following heart surgery this winter.
He 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.
During Mr. Musser’s career, the hotel added a second golf course, went from one restaurant to five, and nearly doubled the number of guest rooms.
When he took over, there were 40 rooms with no baths and 120 rooms that shared a bathroom. He converted the attic into a fourth floor of rooms, expanded the east wing, and now there are 365 individually decorated rooms, all with private baths. The old July 4- to-Labor Day season was also extended, from May through October.
In the city, he chaired the board of public works for 36 years, and he and his wife and business partner, Amelia, have been benefactors to many area organizations.
“He was a great friend, personally, and a great friend to Mackinac Island,” said Mayor Margaret Doud.
Mr. Musser loved the Island, she noted, and in the last conversation she had with him on Palm Sunday, he told her “I cannot wait to get back to Mackinac.”
“He was very charitable and supported the community,” she added. “He was a man of great detail who cared for Mackinac Island in all aspects. He knew the importance of the Department of Public Works. He was involved with the Medical Center, the new library, the Mackinac Island Community Foundation, and knew they were all important to make Grand Hotel even more special.”
In the management of the hotel, Mr. Musser left nothing to chance and demanded the full attention of his staff and the hotel’s vendors. Like his uncle and mentor, the hotel’s former owner, W. Stewart Woodfill, he was quick to react and could be stern in his management. Yet, employees also saw him to be candid and ever curious and, with many, he shared personal friendship.
Donna Louwers of St. Ignace, a pastry cook at Grand Hotel, walks every day from the boat dock up the hill to the hotel. She said if Mr. Musser happened to be passing her on his electric cart, used to nurse a painful leg, he would offer to take her backpack so she would not have to carry it.
“He was delightful,” she said. “He always found little ways to let the staff know he appreciated them.”
John Hulett, the hotel’s managing director, also noted Mr. Musser’s rapport with his employees, and his extraordinary care and concern for his guests.
“Seldom do events occur that leave one with a deep loss, but such is the case with the death of Mr. Musser. He was a wonderful man,” Mr. Hulett said. “Hospitality and Mr. Musser were one and the same. He was genuinely sincere when greeting guests. Yes, it is the nature of his business, but it came so naturally to him and when talking to a guest he paid full attention to that conversation, no matter what was going on around them at the time. The guest was in Mr. Musser’s house and he made that person feel welcome.
“Basically, the same can be said for the employees of Grand Hotel, as they are the ones who make the place run. He was hands-on with the hiring of staff and wanted to make certain the employee being considered for a certain position was right for that particular job. He always had an open door policy and any employee, no matter their position in the hotel, could walk into his office and see him. He was attentive to all employees and was constantly giving direction to them as to how to they could make the guests’ stay more enjoyable.”
Mr. Musser’s affiliation with the hotel spanned more than 60 years, and for three years while in college, beginning in 1951, he was employed there by Mr. Woodfill in the kitchen, bar, business department, and at the desk.
Following college and military service, he was hired full time as assistant manager in 1957, and was named president in 1960. Mr. and Mrs. Musser purchased the hotel in 1979, and he continued as chairman of the operation until 2011, when he retired and his son, Dan Musser III, took over.
Dr. Bill Chambers, president of Mackinac Island Carriage Tours and a friend since they were teenagers, said Mr. Musser “was the epitome of a hands-on guy. Uncle Stewart was not easy on Dan; he wanted him to know every inch of that hotel, and he did. He improved on it. He was a visionary.”
Mr. Musser, in turn, instilled that work ethic in his children, Dr. Chambers added, saying “Dan and Mimi know every part of that hotel,” too, and will continue to be active in the hotel’s operation.
Longtime friend and West Bluff cottager Richard Manoogian remembers Mr. Musser for his strong loyalty to the hotel and the community.
“I would call him an icon on the Island,” he told The St. Ignace News, “and not only from the standpoint of what he did for the Grand, improving it, expanding it, and making it a world class gem that attracts people from all over the world. He also just did so much when there were problems or important issues affecting all the people on the Island.
“If there was anything you ever needed, and he could help,” Mr. Manoogian said, “he just did it quietly. He didn’t want any credit, didn’t want any recognition, he was just a wonderful person to support those in need and anybody who could use his advice or help.”
Mr. Musser’s leadership at the department of public works and his influence in obtaining state and federal funds for improved water and sewer treatment and distribution added a high level of security against fire on the Island and protection of the lake from pollution. Incorporation of recycling and composting has shaved a large portion of the cost the city bears to ship garbage to a landfill on the mainland.
He formed the DPW in the late 1960s and served as chairman of the board until he retired January 1, 2006.
“The Island had a very limited infrastructure,” Dr. Chambers said, “and he could see the problems ahead that would come about without improving the infrastructure. He nearly singlehandedly created the Department of Public Works. I don’t know quite how far along we’d be without Dan.”
Public Works Director Bruce Zimmerman first met Mr. Musser in 1989 when he came to the Island for consulting work.
“He was very gracious, very polite, and probably the most forward-thinking person” in planning the renovation of utilities, Mr. Zimmerman said. “He thought on his feet better than most people I know.”
Mr. Musser began a complete makeover of Grand Hotel in the 1970s, bringing in Carleton Varney, the president and owner of Dorothy Draper Design in New York to transform the hotel into a bright, summery atmosphere with no two rooms alike. The hotel achieved a routine occupancy rate of more than 95%.
Known for close attention to detail, one of Mr. Musser’s 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 handwritten notes to employees, sometimes as many as 50 or 60 a day, pointing out items that needed immediate attention.
“His vision and love of Mackinac Island and Grand Hotel became his whole life,” and the Island and the hotel became “just synonymous,” Dr. Chambers said. “He was strong-willed and always came down on the side of Mackinac Island. That’s what I liked most about him.”
Grand Hotel 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.
Grand Hotel celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2012 and this year marks the family’s 80th year of stewardship for the hotel.
“I think we’re lucky that the family is there to continue the tradition,” said Mr. Manoogian, “not only at the Grand, but on the Island.”
Mr. and Mrs. Musser shared a passion for show dogs, and they reached the pinnacle of that world in 2010 when their Scottish Terrier, Sadie, earned “Best In Show” honors at the 134thWestminster 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.
In addition to Mackinac Island, the Mussers have maintained homes in Laingsburg and St. Croix, where they have wintered for the past 20 years.
Robert Daniel Musser, Jr. was born in Circleville, Ohio, April 29, 1932, 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.
A funeral was 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. Memorials may be made to the Mackinac Island Community Foundation Library Fund.
“Personally, there is a huge void in my life that I will sorely miss for the remainder of my days,” said Mr. Hulett. “He was a great man and a friend.”
“He’s going to be sorely missed,” agreed Dr. Chambers. “He was a good counselor and a hell of a friend. I’m gonna miss him.”
• Wesley Maurer, Jr., wrote this report, with contributions by Stephanie Fortino, Bob Berg, and Karen Gould.