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Passionate, gracious and kind — Susan Stevenson Landis

By MICHELLE JAMES

The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — No one seems to know how Susan Stevenson Landis accomplished all she did.

Among the theories of those who try to guess: “She stayed up late.” “She got up early.” “She somehow had more than 24 hours in her day.”

Friends and colleagues — though to Landis, those two words were nearly interchangeable — were accustomed to seeing her car parked in her Beckley Area Foundation parking spot early in the morning and late at night. And when she wasn’t traveling for work or for one of the many organizations for which she served, they knew the best number at which to reach her was probably that of her office phone.

Susan Landis is serenaded by two West Virginia fiddlers at the 2010 National Assembly of State Arts Agencies conference in Austin, Texas.
(Submitted photo from National Assemble of State Arts Agencies)

Landis was a doer, sitting on the boards — often holding leadership positions — of nearly every organization she encountered.

And her efforts showed in accolades and in numbers, as she championed the arts — chairing the West Virginia Commission on the Arts — and grew the Beckley Area Foundation from 100 named funds worth $5.7 million in 1994 to 450 funds totaling just under $40 million today.

And with her July 14 passing — as her life and all of her many activities and accomplishments have been laid out for all to see — the Beckley community and even those farther away are left to mourn, remember, admire and determine how best to honor her memory.

• • •

Judy Lilly Harrah first met Landis when the two volunteered for the Friends of the Library board in 1977.

And they became fast friends — their sons, both Andrews, although Landis’ Andrew goes by Drew, fast friends as well, playing sports through the YMCA.

“We traveled a lot together,” Harrah says. “A huge part of our lives were spent together.”

Harrah, who works at the Raleigh County Assessor’s Office, served on some of the same local boards as Landis, but she says her friend took her community involvement to another level.

Landis was past president of Theatre West Virginia, a member of the board of trustees for the Concord University Foundation, the Virginia Episcopal School, her son’s alma mater; she served on the boards of the United Way, the Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia, American Red Cross, Raleigh General Hospital, Bank of Raleigh and more.

She was even one of the first two females to join the Beckley Rotary Club.

Beckley attorney Bill File, another close friend, whose office is across the street from the BAF office, shared that long list during her July 19 eulogy at Beckley Presbyterian Church.

“She wasn’t just a member of any board,” he told the crowd of several hundred, who traveled from down the street and across the country. “She actually participated … asked great questions and she made a difference.”

Although Harrah says everyone who knew Landis knew how busy and how involved she was, she says it wasn’t until her passing that the scope of that involvement became clear.

“We didn’t think, ‘Oh here’s Susan Landis,’” Harrah says of her friend of 40 years. “We noted when she got the Spirit of Beckley Award or the Bravo (award). And you kept adding on to your thought process that she’s a special person who does a lot for us in this community. But I don’t think you can grasp the whole thing of her life until you have all these people coming together. Until it’s all in print and it’s in voice.”

• • •

“When she found something she believed in, there was no stopping her,” Randall Reid-Smith, Commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, says about Landis. “When you’re committed to something, you don’t look at the hours involved, you just go. When you have a passion, it’s 24/7.”

Passionate, gracious and kind are words Reid-Smith uses to describe Landis, with whom he had become close over the past 11 years.

The pair traveled often together, promoting the arts all across the Mountain State.

Among the things Landis is most remembered for are handwritten notes, full of words of appreciation and encouragement.

Reid-Smith, who sang “Amazing Grace” at his friend’s memorial service, received his fair share throughout the years.

“I was just cleaning through boxes and found note after note from her thanking me for the smallest thing and encouraging me to work hard for the arts and the artists of our state.”

It’s those “personal touches” he says he will try to emulate.

“I’ve been taking the time to try to write notes,” he says. “That’s what she did. She made each one of us feel very special. I have to make everybody feel special.”

And he is continuing their joint mission to promote the arts and West Virginia.

“I think she would want us to keep working and helping people and to keep promoting what’s so very special about who we are. “

Jay Rist received his first handwritten note from Landis when he was a young boy.

Like Judy Lilly Harrah’s son, Rist also grew up playing sports at the YMCA with Drew Landis.

“She was one of our other mothers,” he says of Susan Landis. “I can remember we were headed to the state soccer tournament in the spring and a week or two later, she sent me a card and she kind of hand wrote this message that said, ‘It’s so nice to see how you lead out there on the field.’

“It’s not common that you see that kind of thing. She was so thoughtful and kind and let you know how well you were doing.”

And when Rist took over as the CEO of that same YMCA, Landis was one of the first to call with words of congratulations and support. That support continued through the BAF’s relationship with the Y, with help in strategic planning and as Rist navigated the world of grant writing.

“As a young professional, it really makes you feel ready for the next challenge,” he says. “That support and leadership is special and it’s too few and far between in this day and age.”

And it’s shaped the kind of leader Rist says he hopes to be one day.

“It seems everything she had an interest in she was passionate about and it really shone through throughout her life,” he says.

• • •

“She was adventurous,” File said of Landis during the eulogy. “She loved to travel with her friends. She was a world traveler.”

Somehow, intermixed with all of her work, Landis found time to go on an African safari, backpack the Grand Canyon — she took a young Drew and Andrew when they were just 10 or 11 — enjoy cruises, raft the Colorado River, and ski.

It was when she joined the Beckley Ski Club in the mid-’80s that she became friends with Susan Hambric, her late husband Doug, and six other couples — the group that formed the monthly dinner club.

“She was like a sister to me,” Hambric says of Landis. “She taught me so much. She was bigger than life.”

Hambric says Landis was a perfectionist, who planned a perfect party down to the last detail. And that same ethic, she says, carried into every aspect of her life.

“I can remember on many, many occasions I would be trying to get in touch with Susan, I don’t know why in the world I called her home first, but when I called the Beckley Area Foundation she’d answer,” she says. “She was there weekends and nights and she answered the phone. She might not always be working on BAF stuff, but she’d go to her office and work on all the other organizations, too.”

And she was close with the women with whom she worked.

Chief Financial Officer Dena Cushman had worked alongside Landis since 2001, but had known her since 1989, two years after she herself moved to Beckley.

“She was quick to introduce me to the people she thought I should know,” Cushman says of her early dealings with Landis.

Cushman has had a front row seat as the foundation has grown through the years, and says it’s due to Landis.

“We’ve had a lot of wonderful board members and volunteers, and she’s trained them,” she says. “She’s touched all of us.”

And again, with personal touches.

For program manager Sharon Lilly it was in the form of a childhood memory — a children’s Blue Willow Tea Set.

“I had mentioned my mother had given mine away and I was looking for one,” Lilly recalls.

Landis listened, filed away the memory and returned on Lilly’s birthday with an antique, children’s Blue Willow Tea Set.

“It was like breathing to her to give,” Lilly says. “She just did it.”

• • •

Harrah was with Landis at the hospital the day she passed away, the day before Drew and his now wife Sharon, who live in Boulder, Colo., took their wedding vows in his mother’s backyard in Daniels.

It was a wedding, for which Harrah served as coordinator, that was moved up a year so that Landis might be able to participate.

And although it was planned just a week ahead, Harrah says her friend did much of the work herself.

“She worked Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and she wasn’t feeling real good,” she says. “She slept a lot.”

Yet, true to form, she planned.

And she even issued instructions from the hospital, telling Harrah whom to call and providing Cushman with last-minute instructions.

“She was known as the cake lady,” File said during the eulogy. “She was a prolific baker of cakes. Always giving cakes to people.”

Friends and even acquaintances rave about Landis’ cooking skills.

“She had over 150 cookbooks,” Harrah says. “Her idea was they’d be wrapped in ribbons and everybody would get a cookbook.”

So when Drew and Sharon decided to go through with the wedding the day after Landis’ passing, with Drew’s daughter Madilyn by his side, every guest left with a cookbook and a special message.

“You are one of the ingredients in our recipe for happiness. Drew, Sharon, Madilyn and Susan”

• • •

“She had the honor of greeting President George W. Bush at the Raleigh County Airport as he got off Air Force One when he came to Beckley during his re-election campaign,” File said, during the eulogy. “There’s an iconic picture of Susan pointing a picture at his chest. The picture’s hanging in her office today. And although she swore she wasn’t lecturing the president, I still think she may have been correcting his grammar.”

Close friend and former Beckley Area Foundation President Pete Torrico says he doesn’t doubt that for a second.

Torrico was the recipient of many of Landis’ special cakes and says although a fantastic baker, he doesn’t believe she baked them simply because she liked to bake. It was another of those famous “personal touches.”

“And I wondered how in the world did she have enough time to make all those damn cakes,” he says, adding he never met a Susan Landis cake he didn’t like. “But she did. And she delivered them. She didn’t call you up and tell you she had a cake for you. She brought them to you.”

Like Judy Lilly Harrah, Randall Reid-Smith, Susan Hambric, Jay Rist, Dena Cushman and Sharon Lilly, Torrico struggles at times when he thinks about the loss of his friend and the void that loss means to the community, her family and beyond.

But he knows the work she did and the legacy she leaves will last.

“She just wrapped herself around the whole community and the whole community became her family,” he says. “She didn’t have to like it here, but she did. She loved us. She could have been anywhere in the United States, but she hung her hat here. I’m sure she had other opportunities to leave. But I thank God she didn’t.”

And now, he says, it’s time to pick up the torch.

“I’ve been thinking what would Susan do if she was here sitting with me tonight,” he says, holding back tears. She would probably look at me and say, ‘Pete, quit sobbing, quit whining, get off your butt and go do something for somebody and make this place a better place to live.’ That’s probably what she would tell me.”

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