By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL — Michael Douglas was a man who spent his life helping others, even though he had little extra to give.
It never stopped the longtime Slidell businessman—founder of Douglas Machine Shop in Slidell—from doing his best to help others through his business, or when he took in teenagers with problems at home, who were suddenly on the streets.
In the end, Douglas saw that help returned to him after being diagnosed with cancer, then having two strokes, as family friends allowed him to live with them through his final months, before he died in October of 2010.
Now, Cindy Byrd-Douglas is hoping some of that assistance through the tough times comes her way, as she continues to struggle through difficult times that followed the death of her husband.
“Michael always believed that if you do good things, it will come back around to you,” she said. “Even through everything I’ve been through, I know that’s still true.”
Cindy Douglas has re-opened Douglas Machine Shop at its longtime location on Beth Drive, just off Fremaux, but believes a lot of her business was lost during a six-month closure after Michael died.
“We had to switch the business to my name and I had to wait three months for the parish to change the title. Including other paperwork, we were closed six months,” she said.
Michael Douglas was a Slidell native who went on his own to open Douglas Machine Shop in 1983. Cindy was a bookkeeper, originally from Ohio, who had come south to live with her aunt and uncle, working as a K&B computer tech during the earliest years of computers.
She was introduced to Michael through a mutual friend after he needed help with his books, leading to a romance where the two got together and became more than working colleagues.
“The thing about Michael is that he was always helping anyone who needed it, no matter if we were broke,” Cindy said. “Guys would come here and need work on their cars and he always helped them, even if they didn’t have the money.”
Their business is a shop that reconditions machine heads, the internal part of a car engine. Douglas Machine specializes in race cars, motorcycles and restorations, making their place a popular gathering spot.
“This is where everyone came to hang out, work on their engines, or stay around while we worked on their engines,” said Cindy, a 21-year Certified Engine Machinist. “I learned how to do the work after being here for a few years and now I love it.”
The couple lived week-to-week financially, but had a strong family atmosphere, going camping and fishing on the West Pearl, or going to races each weekend with one race car Michael had built himself.
“We had awesome times as a family,” Cindy said. “And Michael was so big on the kids getting good grades and having a strong family structure since he never had that. He was adopted as a young boy and never met his real parents until later in life.”
The couple didn’t stop with helping at the shop. After having two children of their own, a friend of their teenage daughter was kicked out of his home, and the Douglas home become his own.
“Michael always wanted to take these kids in to give them a strong family structure,” she said. “He had strict rules, with the top rule being your grades.”
Michael was never sick “a day in his life,” Cindy said, “until five years ago when he began having health problems, eventually being diagnosed with cancer. Initial chemo only made it spread, she claimed, and he eventually went to Mexico for medicine a friend recommended.
“The medicine made it go into remission for over three years. But then he had one stroke, then a second stroke that put him in a nursing home, where he couldn’t do anything for himself,” she said.
That’s where a friend who was a retired RN stepped in and made his final days as good as they could be.
“They didn’t do anything for him at the nursing home. We found him on the floor a couple of times and then when my friend, Terry Chestnut, came to see him, she said, ‘we are not leaving him here.’ And she took him home and cared for him until he died,” Cindy sad. “In the end, the help he gave everyone else came back to him.”
Even after Michael died in 2010, Cindy continues to take in teenagers and currently has five living with her, along with her 17-year-old son, Jonah, who works in the shop. Her 19-year-old daughter, Catalina, is working on becoming an RN.
But the difficulties, including the closing of the shop for six months, have been beyond tough for Cindy.
“I had to borrow from everyone I knew and now we can’t even get a new hot water heater since that costs over $400, so it will have to wait,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can with the shop, but I think a lot of people took their work elsewhere after we closed, and now they have a new place.”
Cindy went through her own health problems with a heart attack in 2010, then contracting shingles and pneumonia, which made work impossible at times.
“I can’t quit,” she said. “Anytime you get down and look around, there are always people worse off than you that need your help. So just like Michael would have done, we try to help them.”