Susan F. Smith is not afraid to stir up the waters to create change in her world, even if it means throwing in a big rock.
Over the past three decades, this mother, teacher and activist has become a veritable legend as a devoted volunteer and fundraiser in nonprofit circles in Centre County.
A petite woman with strong convictions, in one conversation she can recite a pasta sauce recipe, give a recommendation for a good book, then transition into a short history of the local housing woes of low- to middle-income families in Centre County.
Everyone seems to know her or, at the very least, has seen her name attached to some local event or nonprofit organization.
“I’m the one that pokes people in the butt and tells them what to do,” she said.
The 69-year-old former first-grade teacher is founder and coordinator of the Friday concerts on the Lemont Village Green, chairwoman of the Lemont Village Association and bringer of warm homemade bread to her new neighbors.
“She’s called Sue Smith of Lemont,” summed up Ron Smith, her husband of 47 years. “When people talk of Lemont they know she will either do it, know how to do it, or know something about how to do it.”
‘I want the world to be a better place’
The couple had two small children when they moved from Madison, Wis., to Lemont in 1968 so Ron could take a teaching job at Penn State.
Within a few years, Sue had already gotten involved in an effort to keep a post office in downtown Lemont, and pushed to change the planned route of the Mount Nittany Expressway so it wouldn’t divide the small hamlet.
“My mother used to always say, ‘You have to pay attention,’ ” Sue explained. “I think it’s important for people to be aware of what’s going on around them.”
In the past 12 years, the Smiths have written grants and organized events to help raise more than $450,000 to create the Lemont Village Green and rehabilitate the adjacent 1885 John Irvin Thompson Grain Elevator and Coal Sheds, where local farmers once brought their corn, oats, barley and wheat to be weighed and shipped, and trains brought in coal to power the whole area.
One of those fundraising events is the Lemont Strawberry Festival, now almost 30 years old.
“We really care about making this a place where people feel like they belong,” Sue said while walking through her neighborhood on a blue-sky summer day. “That was what was so nice about the (most recent) Strawberry Festival. People came and they stayed.”
She can take a few steps from the only home the couple has owned and she’s standing in the Village Green. It’s a place where rusty oil tanks once sat above ground before the property was purchased by the Lemont Village Association and turned into a park in 1996.
The rehabilitation of the Granary property, acquired by the LVA in 1994, has been a time-consuming endeavor. When its beams were tilted and the property was filled with junk, Smith worked tirelessly with other volunteers to help raise the awareness and money to save the historic site.
It’s now opened only for Haunted Granary and other fundraising events, but Smith predicts it could welcome the general public within a year.
The place where trains once pulled in to dump coal below is now a clean, cavernous wooden room with straight walls, so beautiful that people pay to hold their weddings inside.
After a tour of the Granary, she pointed out some flowers in the village green that she helped 60 Lemont Elementary School kindergartners plant as well as some herbs she put in the ground.
“Hmm, no one’s taken any basil yet,” she says. “I just planted basil for people to use.”
This is prime Sue Smith, an active member or volunteer in at least a dozen local nonprofits, but who makes time to plant a little basil in a public park, hoping to brighten the meal of an unknown family in her neighborhood.
“When I look at the state of the world, all the starvation, tragedy, abuse and war, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, it’s too much, I can’t do anything,’ ” she said. “Instead of being discouraged, I guess that’s where I get my motivation: It’s important to do something, no matter how small, and if everyone does something, the world will become a better place. I want the world to be a better place for my grandchildren and all children in the world.”
Her influence does not end at the green across the street.
She has founded or co-founded many prominent local institutions, such as the Food Bank of State College and Temporary Housing Inc., as well as Centre House, a homeless and transitional shelter in State College.
She is an active member of the Affordable Housing Coalition, sits on the Centre County Housing Authority and is coordinator of the Interfaith Mission Wishing Well campaign that sets up in front of the Corner Room and Meyer Dairy each holiday season.
Even her paid jobs reveal her devotion to people. She’s worked as a substitute teacher in the county, in fundraising and development at the former Tri-County Habitat for Humanity, and as a local legislative aide for former state Rep. Ruth C. Rudy.
“She’s dedicated her life to the community, and there’s nothing in her that seeks out recognition for it,” said Barbara Wilson, who volunteers with Smith at Interfaith Mission. “She would just as soon remain in the background, but almost any agency you bring up she’s done something for them.”
Cancer changes outlook
Part of Smith’s focus on improving the world can be explained by her battle with breast cancer, which began in 1984.
The illness made her see life as precious and, once she was healthy, it gave her additional drive to give to others and to her two children, Daniel and Penny.Thyroid cancer came and went 20 years later. Last year, the breast cancer came back.
Smith had a mastectomy in January, a decision with which she views as a welcome end to a hard book.
She became emotional when she described the most recent round of treatment, but quickly laughed as she recalled the weight that was lifted when she realized she was more content without a prosthesis.
“I feel good now,” she said, smiling contentedly.
Her weekly regimen includes Pilates, tennis and gardening. She’s making more time for herself and her family, including her four grandchildren, two of whom live in Lemont. She’s taking a step back in organizations in which younger leaders have emerged but staying dedicated to several she holds dear.
One of those groups is Interfaith Mission, a nonprofit that helps families in crisis, which she joined in its early days as a volunteer and board member. She recently was recognized as a vital part of its 40 years of service.
“Part of what we are today is because of all Sue’s done and just how she is a friend to the Interfaith Mission,” said director Matt Hall at a recent celebration.
“She’s my hero,” said fellow volunteer Wilson. “To me, she’s the epitome of volunteerism. She lives what she preaches.”
Smith is unique in that she cares about so many aspects of her world, from open government to green burial to children.
She’s a longtime Sunday school teacher at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and volunteers in the classroom, in the kitchen and in fundraising efforts at Park Forest Day Nursery in State College.
“We really value her as a volunteer,” said Gloria Horst Rosenberger, director of the day nursery. “She has enhanced our program in many ways by her advice, her knowledge and her wonderful spirit.”
Smith knows she has given a lot, and she desires to take care of herself enough so she can keep doing it.
“Because I was the kind of person who never said no to anybody and whatever anybody asked I just did it, I learned I need to take time for myself,” she reflected.“The things I do now I do because I really like doing them, so that makes a difference.”
If Sue Smith quit volunteering today, she would leave behind a legacy as concrete as a food bank that feeds hundreds of local families, and as undefinable as music drifting through the air on a summer Friday night.
Luckily for Centre County, Sue isn’t capable of giving up.