Dr. S. Sue Horner
As many of you know, my Mom was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that she has been battling
for over a year. Unfortunately, in the early morning of Good Friday, she lost that battle. While only 72, to say that
Mom lived a full life is an understatement.
Raised in Wheaton, Illinois, she left the Midwest for college on the east coast. As a high school senior, her early aspirations included working at the United Nations facilitating communications among global leaders. A small detour emerged (both figuratively and literally) with the birth of an unplanned son at the end of the summer following her sophomore year in college. Marriage to Dad had preceded the birth but not with enough buffer to elude the disapproval of church leaders. Unshaken and not missing a beat, Mom was back in class that fall ultimately graduating right on time.
A few years later, now with a daughter rounding out the clan, Mom and Dad traded coasts moving just outside San Francisco. Mom supported the family working full-time. In the evening, she completed the first of what would ultimately be three graduate degrees. While Mom burned the candle at both ends, Dad loafed his way through a joint MBA/PhD program at Stanford University.
A few years after graduate school, Mom and Dad returned to the east coast to accept what would be the first of their three collegiate Presidential assignments. They were 31 and 29, the youngest holders of a college Presidential office in the country. The descriptors “their/they” are intentional.
The demands placed on a college President, particularly when leading smaller, less-resourced colleges, are remarkably wide-ranging both in task and audience. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, government and business leaders tend to each have their own priorities and quirks. Successful navigation of this “constituent-diverse” minefield requires more than a single person. Mom and Dad were exceptional (bias confessed) at appreciating and supporting one another in that task. Unfortunately for Mom, organizations tend to move more slowly than individuals. Her (and Dad’s) fight for organizational appreciation would take some time.
The workplace was not the only arena in which Mom did battle. For as long as I can remember, the kitchens of my youth included signs reading “Ask Not What Your Mother Can Do for You, Ask What You Can Do for Your Mother”, “Not the Barefoot and Pregnant Type” and “When God Created Man, She Was Only Fooling”. A bit of a wiseacre, I fondly recall standing next to one of those signs and demanding Mom prepare for me a bowl of ice cream. With equal fondness, I recall her tender reminder, “Don’t be stupid, get your own ice cream.”
In addition to her duties that accompanied that first Presidential assignment, Mom continued developing her professional talents as an author. Oh yeah, she also made the hour-plus commute to Boston to complete her Masters’ Degree at Harvard University.
Presidential assignment number two brought the family to Chicago. Another small college with limited resources and questionable financial footing, Mom and Dad hit the ground running, immediately putting to work their vast toolboxes as seasoned higher education leaders. They were 39 and 37. That Chicago stretch would last nearly 20 years.
Since then, I have lost track of how many times a member of that college community shared with me their thanks for Mom and Dad’s leadership. Some going so far as to say they saved the school. That may or may not be true. What is true is Mom added professor to her resume, teaching classes and mentoring students on the ground in Chicago, Sweden, South Africa, and Australia. She also managed to complete her 3rd graduate degree, a Doctorate from Northwestern University.
After Chicago, Mom and Dad moved back east to Boston where Presidential assignment number three surfaced…The American College of Greece in Athens, Greece. The poetry of this opportunity continues to be unmistakable. Mom and Dad had spent their lives committed to learning, both their own and cultivating it in others. Well before that, there was Mom’s ambition of doing good globally. Now, their mutual professional capstone would be leading an institution with an alumni network stretched across the globe from a campus situated on a hill in the cradle of the birthplace of Western Civilization. Perfection.
The last year has been difficult. Shortly after her diagnosis, the tumor had an increasingly noticeable impact on Mom’s personality rendering it mostly flat. If you knew her, the magnitude of this impact needs no further description. If you did not, re-read the section that concludes with her calling me stupid.
Within what is an overall remarkably sad circumstance, I cannot ignore the many bright spots. Mom and Dad’s employer, The American College of Greece, continues to perform a case study on the delivery of organizational empathy in both word and deed. The home healthcare staff has taken remarkable care of Mom and our entire family. So much so, we now regard them as family. The proximity to Mom and Dad of my sister and her husband, both accomplished professional chefs, has ensured full cupboards of the highest quality meals. Together, the combination of expert healthcare and top-shelf food made it a reality to move Mom from an assisted living facility back into her own home, surrounded by her books, artwork and family photos.
For me, the thoughtfulness of our clients and our team in the office continues to be overwhelming. And I cannot begin to describe the rock that is my wife. Without hesitation, she has supported my frequent visits to Boston. While I am under no illusions about who is in charge at home, I am equally aware being solo with four kids (wonderful they may be), puts more pressure on “The Boss”. That she has selflessly given me so much time with Mom is an unspeakable gift.
Things could be much worse as none of these bright spots are necessarily so. For each of them, I am deeply grateful.
Mom’s impressions on me are many. Beyond her remarkable passion for lifelong learning, she led our family in an appreciation of the arts, music, and food. Experiencing Dad’s velvety scrambled eggs with a hint of cream and snips of basil, one would never attribute to the same cook, a disturbingly gray Thanksgiving Jell-O he unveiled 35 years ago. Mom’s influence made us each better. My Boston visits this past year always included making breakfast for Mom. Hanging on the inside of one of the kitchen cabinets was a familiar sight, her sign, “Not the Barefoot and Pregnant Type”. None of her other signs hung in the kitchen. Never being shy about sharing her opinions, I believe the location of that sign revealed its personal significance. She hung it there for her.
A few years ago, Mom started using the phrase, “Most people in life are doing the best they can.” She would share that wisdom in times of my frustration with business or to help her grandchildren navigate challenges in school, sports or friendships. A wonderful perspective. However, set against her earlier life experiences that included hypocritical finger-wagging from religious leaders and marginalization of her professional contributions, her advocating tolerance even for the intolerant is stunning.
Young motherhood. Supporting her full-time graduate student husband. Love of the arts. Ridiculous academic achievement. Passion for learning. Fiercely encouraging and supportive of her children and grandchildren. An ever-inquisitive citizen of the world. All this wrapped in a package of dazzling blue eyes, an easy and infectious smile, and an engaging and accepting personality that drew you in with arms wide open.
Sue Horner. Not the barefoot and pregnant type. That’s damn right.