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Marion County's Most Interesting People: The Renaissance Man

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Jon Michael is a man of many talents, accomplishments

By Stevie Lowery

Jon Howard Michael, 74, of Bradfordsville could quite possibly be the most interesting person in Marion County.
For starters, he has a photographic memory. He remembers, very vividly, every event of his life, starting at a very young age. He remembers every name, every place, every single detail, down to the year and day of the week an event occurred. It’s uncanny, really. Talking with him can be overwhelming (in a good way) because he literally remembers everything.
And, he’s so smart, which led to him having a very long and successful career with Sears, Roebuck & Company. His career took him around the world, and he’s visited virtually every continent many times.
Then, there are his hobbies. He has bred, raised, sold and shipped American Bison and Desert Arabian horses all over the country and world. He’s also a collector, and has a vast collection of owl, duck and turtle figurines, antique African masks, elephant carvings, Chinese wood carvings, furniture, ceramics, bird cages and tea pots, along with a complete collection of National Geographic magazines that are neatly on display at his home. His unique cedar keep home, which he designed himself, is nestled among his 935-acre ranch - Hidden Hollow Preserve. His ranch and home are designed in such a way that it’s as if he’s on his very own island, only a creek surrounds him rather than an ocean. It’s his version of paradise. It’s where he planned to live for the rest of his life, and where he wanted his ashes to be scattered after he takes his last breath. But, his paradise is currently for sale. To understand why, one must start at the very beginning in Binghamton, New York where Michael grew up.
He was born on Aug. 24, 1939. His parents, who both grew up during the Great Depression, were strict but they, along with his siblings (one brother and two sisters) are what helped mold him into the person he is today.
“My dad could do anything,” Michael said. “He had such incredible confidence.”
His father worked for IBM before it became IBM and, after World War II, opened a very successful electrical store.
His mother and father were both strict, but supportive.
“You stood up when a woman walked into a room. You didn't speak unless you were spoken to,” Michael said. “But, on the other hand, they never tried to restrict our thought. They encouraged you to use your imagination.”
Michael thrived in school, and he was also very athletic, specifically in swimming. Anything his older brother did he had to do better.
“I always felt I had to prove myself,” Michael said.
But, that wasn’t only because of the sibling rivalry he shared with his brother. By the time he was nine years old Michael knew he was different. He knew he was gay, and he thought he was the only one in the world.
“I literally would come home from school everyday and take my dog, Suzie Q, and hike to a place called ‘The Glen’,” Michael said. “I’d sit on a log and look up and say, ‘Why did you make me this way?  I have perfect attendance in Sunday School!’”
Michael said he contemplated suicide often. He loaded and unloaded one of his father’s guns many times. But, he never followed through with it in fear that his parents would discover why. So, instead, he was forced to hide who he really was.

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Excelling academically, professionally
He graduated from North Senior High School in June of 1957, third in his class, and went on to attend the University of New Mexico with his very best friend from high school. They both earned swimming and academic scholarships. Initially, he studied engineering but became bored to death.
“I got straight As and never opened a book,” Michael said.
He decided to switch majors and study biology, which was really his first love. But, the head of the biology department hated jocks and made things difficult for Michael. So, he switched majors again and began to study business. He graduated from college in June of 1962 with a bachelor of arts in business administration and minors in biology, chemistry and physics.
He moved back home to New York and went to work as a carpenter building houses for a custom home building firm for two years.
“I just wanted to learn how to do that,” Michael said.
During that time, he began a relationship with a woman, not because he wanted to but because he felt like he had to. He wasn’t ready to come out yet, and she was the type of woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
They eventually got engaged and were married in 1964. They moved to California, and after two years, they divorced. Soon after, he began his long and extremely successful career with Sears. He started as a management trainee in 1964, and climbed the ladder within the company until he was at the very top. He would go on to become a national buyer, the director of the China division, special projects director, and the managing director of the Hong Kong Regional Office.
“I was a maverick,” Michael said. “When company policy wouldn't make sense I refused to follow it and I would make up my own and a couple of years later the company would catch up. If Sears had done what I told them to do they would be the Wal-Mart of today.”

Discovering his gift
While he made a name for himself within Sears, Michael also decided to open up to his family. He confided in his brother first, and then on July 7, 1969, he told his mother. She didn’t know what “gay” meant.
“I had discovered at this point that my gayness is my gift,” Michael said. “It's inseparable. It comes with advantages. It comes with an intelligence, a creativity that don't go with straightness.”
When his father found out, he cried.
“It was only the second time my mom ever saw him cry,” Michael said, tears welling up in his eyes.
But, his family finally knew him – the real him – and that was a relief.
Meanwhile, his career with Sears continued to advance. And, in 1989, the company asked him to go work in Hong Kong. As fate would have it, a year after moving there, he met his partner, Charlie. He remembers the exact day they met – Sept. 24, 1990.
“I took the chance... never been sorry since,” Michael said. “I don't think we've ever had a fight. It's been 24 years.”
In 1993, Michael retired from Sears, and he and Charlie moved back to the United States. Michael, who had been planning for his retirement for years, had already purchased land in Marion County. He bought it after seeing a classified ad in the Chicago Tribune for land for sale. After seeing the land in person, he bought it and that’s where his home and ranch sit today. At one time, he also had 78 buffalo and 20 Arabian horses on his land, as well. But, in 2008, he began selling all of his buffalo and most of his horses because he knew he was going to eventually have to sell his ranch. He and Charlie, who were married in California on Sept. 24, 2000, qualify under federal law for all of the benefits that heterosexuals receive. But, their future is still very unclear in Kentucky. And, if something were to happen to him, he wants to be 100 percent sure that Charlie is taken care of, financially. As of right now, it’s unclear if they would be exempt from Kentucky’s 16 percent estate tax, which would apply to any non-blood beneficiary, and that's all they would consider Charlie, Michael said.
“My entire drive is to preserve Charlie,” he said. “He gave up everything – his family, his friends, his entire life in Hong Kong – to come here. I owe it to him. I promised his mother I would take care of him.”
And while he is approaching his 75th birthday this summer, Michael has a whole lot more living he wants to do. And, it’s likely he has plenty of time left because he has good genes. Three of his grandparents lived into their late 90s and 100s.
“I'm liable to be around awhile,” he said. “So, what’s next for me? It’s an interesting question… Whatever I want it to be.”