Susan Houghton

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She Hath Done What She Could
29 July 2014
Memoir by Michael Usey

One time when Ruth, Susan’s mother, was in Atlanta, she worshiped at Inman Park United Methodist Church.  During the service she spied the detail from Martha Beall Candler window there, specifically the ribboned words, “She Hath Done What She Could,” a quotation of course from the KJV of Mark 14.8 that we just heard read.  Those words struck Ruth, and she thought then that they were a pretty good statement of her life’s goal and purpose.  She passed this on to her daughter, Susan, whom we’re gathered to remember.  By the end of this service, I trust you’ll be able to say that, indeed, Susan “hath done what she could,” and that it was remarkable.

What’s going on in Mark 14 is that Jesus’ followers don’t know what’s going on.  Jesus’ own disciples are clueless, especially about the coming execution of their lord.  But this unnamed woman realizes what’s in the air, she sees clearly the doom about to happen.  It is this unnamed woman who recognizes the truth about Jesus, and who has great spiritual insight.  She gives this grand, costly gesture; she pours out the expensive ointment on his head, and, in so doing, prepares him for coming trials and burial.  The disciples are unhappy, mainly because she exposes their shallow faith, and Jesus remains unimpressed with their false piety.  (In fact, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a German feminist theologian who teaches at Harvard, wrote her groundbreaking study of Christian origins in 1983 entitled In Memory of Her, honoring this unnamed woman in Mark.)  It is an act that is a lovely synthesis of generosity, understanding, and love—which is a good summary of the same trio of gifts that we remember, celebrate, and give thanks for in Susan today.  Generosity, understanding, and love.

What to say when someone as young as Susan dies just weeks before her beloved daughter heads off to her first year of college? We’re careful not to say things offer false comfort, or things about which we cannot know. I don’t believe God took her, or that her death was part of some divine plan, or any nonsense like that. We do all owe God a death, and one day we all surely die. Susan died of a severe head trauma, and she is too soon gone from us.

Some hard and painful experiences in our lives are simply the result of our being finite creatures. It is part of our creaturely existence that there is decay as well as growth, age as well as youth, loss as well as gain, pain as well as pleasure, sickness as well as health, death as well as birth. Creaturely life at best is fragile, vulnerable, and temporary. Scripture is quite honest about this. Human beings are like the flowers of the field that blossom, live for a while, then wither and die. Some suffering and death is the result of our own or others’ actions, but according to scripture, suffering and death as such are not evil. Death may not be our friend, but death is not our enemy. Death only means that we are creatures and not God. Unlike the Creator, we creatures do not live forever.

The vulnerability of our lives is painful and hard to bear—especially when life seems to end too soon. But death is a terrible problem only for those who cannot accept the fact that we are creatures and not gods, those who do not know what a compassionate and just God can do within the limitations of our lives, and those who do not know that God’s will for our good is finally stronger than the worst that can happen to us, including death itself.

Susan’s short life, however, was a beacon of generosity, understanding and love.  She certainly hath done what she could. One of her good friends, Pam Barr, Professor of Managerial Sciences at Georgia State, wrote me to tell this story, which illustrates her generosity of spirit:

We were all gathered for lunch one day, and one of the faculty members announced that he had recently received notice that his paper had been accepted for publication in a journal and for a presentation at major conference.  Susan jumped up from the table to congratulate the person and said that she was so happy for him that she had to do a summersault.  And she did.  Right there in the middle of the floor.  The lunch table wasn’t located in a room, but at the end of a wide hallway.  But the story gets better.  Summersaults became anticipated.  Faculty members and PhD students would come to Susan’s door with their news of recent accomplishments and ask “Do I get a summersault?” and they always did.

For me, Pam said, “this story highlights the joy and enthusiasm Susan brought to life and the exuberance with which she shared that joy with everyone she met: friends, family, students and colleagues.  And it was infectious and it made everyone a little bit silly, to the point that we were working for summersaults.  We’ve missed that joy and exuberance in the department since she moved to Greensboro, but part of it lives on through the story.  And part of Susan will live on in all of us, as we continue to share our memories, stories and look for our own summersaults in everything we do.”

Susan was generous with her students.  Teaching business strategy and at entrepreneurship at NCA&T, she was concerned that her students connected think clearly, read accurately, and understand that business was essentially about how we connect with people.  She was a brilliant teacher, and always loved to consider how she could be better and more effective.  Her friend, colleague, and fellow iconoclast Alice Stewart remembers how Susan was always so creative in her teaching style, bring in stunning visuals or music that coordinated with a concept she was teaching.  In listening to her friends talk about how she taught, it struck me that Susan had the gift of synthesis, the ability to make connections between many diverse and unlike things into a theory or system.  It’s a rare gift to be sure, and it’s the sign of a nimble, playful mind.  She read widely, especially in history.  It wasn’t unusual for her to make connections to the plague years and WW2 to the something she was teaching in business.

Born in 1960 in Lexington, Mass., to Ruth and Norman Martin, Susan was always bright and hardworking.  She was valedictorian of Duxbury High, and earned her BA from Yale, and MBA and PhD from UNC- Chapel Hill.  With her doctorate in Strategic Management, Susan joined the Department of Managerial Sciences at the Mack Robinson School of Business at Georgia State in 1993 and taught there until 2007, winning an award for outstanding teaching in the 2006.  In 2007, Susan joined the faculty of the School of Business and Economics at NC A&T State University, where she was enormously liked and loved in and out of the classroom.  She was known as a clear-eyed person who gave good advice, a professor with integrity and compassion.  And of course Susan’s generosity continues: as an organ donor, her injury provided the gift of life to many people.

Like the woman who anointed Jesus, Susan was insightful; she understood that life was precious and brief.  She told Alice three years ago, “I think I’m going to die soon.”  And Susan acted on this insight by completely arranging her will, finances, and powers of attorney; these elements are carefully settled and provided for.

And from the very beginning of Julia’s life, Susan raised her to be self sufficient, her own woman.  Consequently, Julia’s mature for her 18 years, and more ready than most for the years ahead without her mother’s physical presence. Julia, for example, made ginger snaps for the nurses in ICU who were caring for her mother.  Julia’s an accomplished pianist headed to be chemistry major at UNC.  It won’t be easy without her remarkable mother, but Susan did prepare her as best she could.

Another friend, Mary Ann Glynn, remembers when Susan was pregnant.  She said, “Susan and I met and spent time together in Atlanta, while she was on the faculty at Georgia State and I was at Emory.  There was a group of great, strong, smart, funny, high achieving and simply wonderful women who would get together with some regularity; even in this group, Susan was a standout, a force of nature that would bring us all together and insure we had a good time together.  She liked to party, and she was good at it.

“One memorable time that we all partied was to celebrate the joyous news that Susan was expecting.   She was so radiant, Mary Ann said, so thrilled at the idea of motherhood and her soon-to-arrive joy, Julia.  We planned a baby shower, a little tea party for the southern belle who would soon arrive.  Susan was initially surprised; after all, it was a traditional event for an untraditional mother, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to fall into any stereotypical notions of parenthood or gender roles.  So, naturally, we made it uber-traditional, just to get her going.  We even wore white gloves, and our baby gift was a child’s china tea set, just to give Julia her training wheels. In the end, it was a delightful event that Susan thoroughly enjoyed.  That was so Susan, always finding a way to make it fun, to see the humor and, especially, to see the good in all.  We’ve lost such a bright, shining light and I am heart-broken.”

Susan understood that life was to be lived to the hilt, to the fullest, that carpe diem was more than just words.  Susan adored the beach, and she felt free when she was there–although she thought the water here in NC was too warm even in winter.   And it wasn’t unheard of, if no one was around, for her to strip off her clothes and dive into the ocean. Susan had a red convertible sports car; she was no shrinking violet.  Émile Zola said ‘If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I will answer you: I am here to live out loud.’  Susan lived out loud.  She was passionate about all the elements of her life: the beach, birding, reading, teaching, quilting, parenting—and most of all the significant people in her life: her parents, her daughter Julia, her friends, and especially her partner Chip.  She loved her life, and I think this pleases our Creator immensely.  She hath done what she could with all these.

Lastly, she shares with the woman who anointed Jesus in Mark 14 an ability to love deeply those around her.  Mother Teresa said, Do small things with great love, and certainly that was true of Susan too.  Everything I’ve mentioned that Susan did—her teaching, her passion for her friends and students, her thirst for knowledge and ability to be see the comedy in life—all of these delightful traits were suffused with a great love.

Her ex-husband John said at her memorial service in Atlanta Saturday, “I now understand how Susan’s compassion during and in the years after my five weeks in a coma helped to kill her.  She was never the same.”  Susan cared for John as long as she could, and how she handled her then-husband’s accident demonstrates her courage, compassion, and great love.  John was hit by a truck and would have died if not for Susan’s care for him.  With a full teaching load and a four-month-old baby, caring for a man almost twice her size, she never complained.

Clearly Susan also had the gift of making friends, as witnessed by two memorial services and an outpouring of love from scores of colleagues, students, friends, and family.  And of course she had great love for her life partner, Chip Barksdale, with whom she spent a remarkable seven years.

There are many more Susan stories and you’ll hear more today—and I hope we’ll keep on telling Susan stories to each other.  There was so much generosity of spirit, so much understanding of what is truly important, and so much love for life and all those around her, packed in this one life.  We can all count ourselves blessed to have known her and loved her.  Truly, she hath done what she could, and it was extraordinary.

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