Associate dean made home away from home
Work and marriage brought Danielle Guichard-Ashbrook to India, Japan, and Hong Kong, where she studied, taught, and assisted refugees. That was ample preparation to direct MIT’s International Students Office, but her emotional resume was just as pronounced. To sense the struggle of adapting to a distant new home, she needed only to look inside her heart.
Her mother was from the small German town of Niederlahnstein, and her father, a Parisian, was part of the French occupation forces after World War II. They moved to the United States when Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook was 2, settling in the Bloomington-Normal area of Illinois.
“She was of this country, but also not, because their home was deeply European and it gave her an insider-outsider perspective on life,” said her husband, Tom Ashbrook, whose family settled in that part of Illinois in 1818. “She understood intimately what it was to live in this country, but not be entirely of it.”
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook “touched the lives of thousands of students. Everybody is heartbroken,” said Maria Brennan, assistant director of the International Students Office. “She had a particular love for international students, and she was well aware of the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture.”
As associate dean for international students, Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook worked until about six weeks before she died of breast cancer on Nov. 7 in her Newton home. She was 60 and “bore her illness with great dignity,” Brennan said.
Diagnosed several years ago, Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook was private about an illness that “she hated so much,” said her daughter, Lauren, who returned home from Yale University soon after fall classes began, to be with her mother. “Her hatred had nothing to do with fear of death. It was singularly because she loved life so much. And that to me was really inspiring. She just loved the life she was living and didn’t want it to end.”
Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook brought to her life an attention to detail that amplified every gesture and elevated each moment. It was as if she viewed the world through a prism that was at once pragmatic and poetic.
“She gave me an appreciation for how powerful it can be to make every minute of your life beautiful,” said her son Dylan, who lives in San Francisco.
“It’s hard to remind yourself that you have the power to do that, let alone to do it, and she did it all the time,” he said. “When you’re the child of someone who believes in the power and potential beauty of every moment, you can only imagine how she makes you feel about your own potential. The older I get, the more I appreciate how she made me feel.”
For Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook, every close relationship “was a gift to be indulged. She didn’t hold back when she loved something. She loved it in the biggest way possible,” said her other son, Ben of Los Angeles.
“She taught me how to love life. She taught me how to find the beauty in it, in a gentle, tender way. She didn’t tell me how, she showed me how,” he said. “The love she had was so powerful that it’s bigger than time, bigger than death. And because she gave me that, I feel I can still have her present in my life. She’s living through me; she’s with me. It’s the greatest gift I could ever have received.”
Danielle Guichard was the oldest of four daughters — “they were the town beauties,” her husband recalled. Her father, Robert Guichard, was an engineer at General Electric. Her mother, the former Barbara Lauer, taught elementary school.
In high school she began dating Tom Ashbrook, who now hosts the WBUR-FM talk show “On Point,” and whose extended family has farmed land in McLean County for seven generations. “I was 16, she was 17. We just fell deeply in love very, very early on and stayed there for 42 years,” he said. “In my love with her, I was marvelously lucky.”
In the Guichard home, “the big song was always ‘La Vie en Rose, which became our song,” he said. “As a Midwestern farm boy, I just found that deep enveloping sense of romance intoxicating.”
He went to Yale, she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and while still undergraduates they left for India, where they married the first of three times. It was 1975 and their community looked askance at an unmarried couple living together, so they wed. “We were too young for our parents to accept it so we didn’t mention it back home,” he said.
Two years later, he was a journalist based in Hong Kong and she was a program supervisor for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, assisting those fleeing Vietnam. Again neighbors preferred they marry locally, so they did once more. In 1979, “we were married for the third and final time on my family’s farm,” he said. “It was many years before our families knew that was our third.”
They moved to Boston, where Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook graduated with a master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her husband wrote for the Globe, which sent him to Japan, where she became an academic coordinator for an educational company.
Returning to the Boston area, their lasting home, he became a deputy managing editor at the Globe, and later joined WBUR-FM. She started at MIT, working her way up through jobs in which she helped guide and supervise international students. In 2001, she was named director and associate dean for international students.
“She cared so deeply about the students,” said Steven Lerman, a former vice chancellor at MIT who is now provost at George Washington University. “She would just go out of her way to find ways of making them welcome.”
Directing the International Students Office at MIT, Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook became versed in visa law, all the more so since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She intervened when potential students encountered difficulties, personally welcomed them when they arrived at last, and threw receptions. At home and at work, she made each holiday and every celebration memorable.
“You should see what holidays in this house looked like — and birthdays and Halloween parties,” Dylan said. “They were all amazing because of her power of committing to the moment.”
In addition to her husband and children, Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook leaves a granddaughter; her parents, who live in Medford, Ore.; and three sisters, Elisabeth Hiltabrand of Bloomington, Ill., Peg Watters of Phoenix, and Natalie Milby of Rockford, Ill.
A private service was planned for last Saturday.
Brenda Cotter and RuthAnn Sherman, a couple who were friends and neighbors of Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook in Newton, befriended her when their children attended school together.
From parties for children to gatherings for parents to costumes she wore, “the thing that most strikes me about Danielle is that she never did things by half-measures,” Cotter said.
“One thing will stay with me for the rest of my life,” she added. “Just a couple of weeks ago Danielle was very ill and really without a whole lot of energy. And kind out of the clear blue sky, she started singing ‘Love Is a Rose,’ and she had a very beautiful singing voice. It was so striking.”
Moments when Ms. Guichard-Ashbrook slipped from the literal into the lyrical were not uncommon. When her daughter was young, sometimes she would awaken to sounds of a melody. “I could hear music,” Lauren recalled, “and if I crept downstairs, I could catch her dancing in the living room, just by herself.”