Farewell to a pioneer – a tribute to Susan J Ellis

Andy Fryar February 25, 2019 19
Farewell to a pioneer – a tribute to Susan J Ellis

The world is a much poorer place today.

Susan Ellis wasn’t merely a shining light in the volunteer management world – she was the light house! And while there were times her presence may have been inconvenient for some, it was always necessary. 

I first ‘met’ Susan online in late 1998 and I remember it as clearly as if it were just yesterday. 

Sitting in my home office on my ‘dial up’ internet connection, I had stumbled across the Energize website a few weeks earlier and had been devouring the resources I found there. I had ordered some books and read everythingI could find online that this ‘Susan Ellis’ had written. As a (much younger) Volunteer Manager I was in awe!

I was particularly fascinated by Energize’s Hot Topic column and after reading everything written to that point, I plucked up the courage to send an email to Susan herself, to ask if she had ever written anything (or considered writing anything) on the topic of time management as it applied to Volunteer Leaders.

I had knots in my stomach as I pushed the SEND button and waited for what seemed like an eternity for the computer to confirm my email was hurtling towards Philadelphia.

Little did I know that single email would change the shape of my professional life – and that for the next 20+ years I would gain a mentor, business partner and most importantly, a dear friend.

Susan’s response to my email, when it came, was short and to the point. “No” she responded, “but I’d love for you to write one for me”, and just like that, I became only the second ever guest Hot Topic author for Energize, and our friendship was away! (If you’re interested you can still read that Hot Topic – https://www.energizeinc.com/hot-topics/1999/june)

My first face-to-face meeting with Susan a year later was just as memorable. It was mid-morning and I was standing on the sidewalk outside of the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide, as Susan emerged from a taxi

At the time I was on the Board of both Volunteering Australia and Volunteering SA, and as a member of the committee that was overseeing the National Volunteering Conference for that year, I had suggested Susan would be a great addition to the program as a keynote presenter and workshop leader.

After more than 35 hours of flying from the USA, including some unexpected delays, Susan emerged from that taxi very much later than expected (she was meant to have arrived the previous evening)and she was completely exhausted. 

However, there was no time to waste, as the conference had already kicked off inside the hotel, and after the usual introductory ‘faff’ and speeches to be made by local politicians, Susan J Ellis was the first keynote speaker on the program!

So, we raced to the reception desk and checked her in, dropped bags into her room, and then ran for the conference. Susan and I marched into the back of a packed auditorium quite literally as the MC was reading out her bio to the audience. She kept walking to the front of the room, took the stage, and had us all completely mesmerised for the next two hours! 

It was a close call, but my recommendation to the conference committee was more than vindicated!

Following the conference, and to help share Susan’s international airfares around, it had been arranged that she would run some workshops around the country – and lucky for me, it had been agreed that I should be the one to chaperone her and make sure everything went smoothly on her journey.

Now anyone who knows anything about Susan also knows that she had an innate love for travel – and to learning about local customs and history. It was to be the first of many travel adventures we had together all over the world.

First stop on that trip was Darwin, and on one of our days off, it was decided we would do a day trip to Kakadu National Park. For those not familiar with Kakadu, it lies some 250kms to the east of Darwin, and the itinerary / trip we decided to do that day had us setting off at the crack of dawn and returning after dark. For a young Volunteer Manager to spend 15 hours ‘trapped’ on a bus with Susan and to soak up her knowledge and history of the voluntary sector was gold!

Even though I had known Susan for a little while by this time, it was on that day that our friendship was truly forged.

The other thing that sticks in my mind from that first visit to Australia for Susan was her desire to not only see the sites, but to meet some of the local Aussie pioneers in volunteerism – so it was my pleasure to arrange meetings for her with people like Margaret Bell and Joy Noble.She didn’t come as the ‘American who knew it all’, but very much as a student in a new land, wanting to learn even more. It was truly one of her great traits.

Susan meeting (then) IAVE President Margaret Bell in Sydney in June 2000

As an aside, many may not know that Susan was very nearly an Australian!

Her parents were survivors of the holocaust and after escaping Europe, they secured a visa to live in Australia, which they did (in Sydney) for nine years, before moving on to the USA to be closer to other family members. Susan was born about a year later, and she often reflected on the fact that she so easily could have been born an Aussie! 

In 2000, Susan (and Steve McCurley) invited me to join the editorial team of e-volunteerism and later, it was also Susan who encouraged me to launch OzVPM, way back in 2002.

Remember, this was a time when the internet was still in its infancy and we were used to learning only via print and paper books. Back then, if you wanted to learn from the likes of Susan Ellis, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch and others, you had to physically send a cheque to the US and wait several weeks for it to return.

As a young entrepreneur and Volunteer Manager, I wanted to make those resources more accessible to Australian volunteer leaders, and so with Susan’s encouragement and support, we entered into our first business partnership.

The OzVPM website became a local resource, built very much on the Energize model, with its own Hot Topics section and an online bookstore that was only possible because it was quite literally affiliated with Energize. The partnership was a great one and allowed Nth American publications easier access to an Australian audience, while at the same time we were able to introduce Australian publications to the Energize audience.

One enduring lesson that I learned from Susan was that ‘making a name for yourself’ was not and should not be the end goal in business (or volunteerism). 

Rather, when your voice gains some credibility, Susan believed and modelled her belief that we have a responsibility to create links and legacies with a view to making whatever follows us stronger and better. She was all about encouraging others to write, to speak at conferences and she loved connecting dots that otherwise may not have found their way to be connected. 

Susan always loved this photo, taken at a museum in Denver in 2002

Through Susan I had the opportunity to meet many other leaders in the field of volunteerism who I have had the privilege of working with and who have themselves also become good personal friends.

When Martin J Cowling and I decided to pull together the first ever Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management, in Canberra in 2005, it took us only a milli-second to know who the third member of our faculty needed to be. Over the ensuing eight years in which that event was held, Susan joined us on two other occasions and was always a most popular drawcard.

As young business men and volunteering leaders, the opportunity to work with Susan was not only mentally stimulating, it was also profitable and helped us to establish the work we were doing in Australia. Susan particularly loved that on the back of one of her speaking tours, Martin and I both purchased our first laptop computers and we both chose to name them after her – Susan I and later Susan II

But aside from all of that, Susan was first and foremost a friend and mentor.

For many years, we routinely booked a once a month skype call where we would spend an hour or so talk about all and sundry. For all the advances in technology that Susan saw during her life, I still think that skype was the one that most blew her away! I’d love a dollar for every time she exclaimed how amazing it was that we could talk to one another one different sides of the planet.

I’m really going to miss those talks.

Susan also had a great sense of humour.

She was thrilled when I introduced her as ‘Auntie Susan’ to my children when they were small, and she used to take great delight when we were at a conference dinner (or similar) and people would ask me if I had children (I have 5 including two sets of twins and my wife has 4, including triplets!). As soon as the question was asked, there would be a high pitched shrill of laughter from Susan as she settled back and waited with anticipation to see the look on the face of the person naively asking the question as they did the math and realised the tribe I had.

Meeting a Koala with my daughter Alannah in the early 2000’s

I also remember her being thrilled to declare herself the first ever volunteer management consultant to visit Antarctica! I seem to remember seeing a photo of her pretending to plant a flag declaring the same!

Another funny memory occurred while driving to spend a few days with my parents about a decade ago. After a busy week of workshops, we had a six hour drive from Adelaide to the Grampians, where my folks were living at the time. Somewhere along the highway, a patrol car pulled up behind me, clocked me as speeding, and blasted its lights and sirens.

Now, in Australia when you get pulled over by the police, you stop the car, get out of the vehicle and wander back to talk to the Officer and receive what he or she has to hand out to you. That was clearly not the way things worked in Philadelphia, where clearly the protocol was to stay firmly in your vehicle and do exactly what the officer was telling you – lest you get tasered or shot!

Anyway, as I started to exit the vehicle there was this look of sheer terror on Susan’s face and she screamed ‘What are you doing!!!’– I told her all was well and with that disappeared to the rear of the vehicle. When I got back into the car, she still looked white as a ghost and I am sure she thought my volunteer management career was going to end on the side of the highway that day.

On another occasion, we had flown into Canberra airport en route to do some training or another, when I spied, near the baggage belt, a guy trying very hard to look incognito, with a baseball cap pulled over his face. I firstly recognised his wife, and then whispered to Susan “I think that’s Hugh Jackman over there!”. Now anyone who knew Susan knows that possibly the only thing that exceeded her love of volunteerism, was her crush on Hugh Jackman! Seriously, having never seen Susan herself star struck – I thought she going to wet herself!

Being Susan, she of course marched across and introduced herself (and me) and carried on a short chat with her idol. And why not – after all, I am sure she was the only person in the terminal that day who could boast of seeing the Boy from Oz seven times on Broadway!

Another absolute treat was the opportunity to stay a few days with Susan in Philadelphia, which I was lucky to do on a number of occasions. Breakfast at IHOP was mandatory and if you were particularly lucky, you’d be invited to partake in Susan J Ellis historic car tour of Philly. 

For you see, Susan was not just a buff of volunteering history, she loved all things historic, and her self-driving tours became legendary. She knew every nook and cranny of the city that she loved and there were no historical facts overlooked as she ensured you left with all the knowledge you could ever need. Of course, no tour was complete without a compulsory stop to taste and debate the age-old Philadelphian question as to whether Geno’s or Pat’s Philly Cheesesteaks were best!

Speaking of driving, another seldom known fact was that Susan was (in my opinion) the best reverse parallel parker I ever met. She could hardly see over the steering wheel but would reverse, first go, into parking spaces that I would not have believed you could fit her car into! 

On my first ever visit to stay with Susan, she took me further afield and we visited the Amish communities in Lancaster County, while my very last homestay with Susan was also memorable as that trip was the first time that Susan, Rob Jackson and I had ever been together in one place, despite working so closely for so long. As it happened, Rob and I were there on July 4th and so Susan arranged a special evening for the three of us, to watch the fireworks on the lake at a local rowing club.

It’s a memory I will always cherish.

Susan and friends – Denver 2002 (L-R Melissa Eystad, Andy Fryar, Steve McCurley, Betty Stallings, Susan Ellis and Sarah Jane Rehnborg

But for all the personal memories I have, Susan’s greatest strength in life was that she was a fighter.

She knew right from wrong and while she may have been a complete pain in the ass at times, when she saw an injustice, or something that just didn’t make sense, she would speak up about it.

She was professionally devastated at the loss of AVA in North America and with others, was a driving force to try and resurrect that body (or something akin to it) and she was often at loggerheads with many of the established peak volunteering agencies around the world – but alwaysfor a good reason.

Susan’s fighting spirit extended into her personal life and into her prolonged battle with the cancer that eventually took her from us all. In October 2012 Susan received her first cancer diagnosis and in true Susan fashion, she quickly pulled together an email support group of friends who she would regularly email her ‘Medical Magical Mystery Tour’ updates to on a regular basis. Through this, Susan’s sense of humour and fascination with the treatments she was receiving never waned. This support group became known as the ‘Bad Ass Unicorns’ in acknowledgement of her love of the mythical creature.

The Bad Ass Unicorns have lost a member today – but we will vow to continue the good fight that Susan started.

Her legacy must be that we all stand up and speak out when we see a ‘wrong’ being committed to volunteerism and we must all make sure that like Susan, we leave volunteerism in a better place than where we found it.

Rest in Peace my friend.


  1. Charlene Wee March 5, 2019 at 12:04 am - Reply

    Hi Andy,

    Thank you for the tribute. Susan Ellis has been and always will be an inspiration and mentor both in my direction as a volunteer resources manager but also as a human being with ethics and strong principles.

    Her stand on everything volunteering and about the human condition was always a strength I turned to. When I felt pressure in the field to give in, give up or bend my ethics, her words and her teachings (that is what I would call them) reassured me – be strong, stand your ground for what you know is right and be brave. Alternative opinions are never popular and yet it was her unwaiving but still welcoming perspectives that continues to and should continue to change the world for the better.

    Our world not just the volunteering one, has lost a brilliant light, a ship that provided so much guidance to us lost sailors… so let us be that legacy, continue her work and be a light to others.

    • Andy Fryar March 5, 2019 at 3:11 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Charlene – she made a big influence on many of us

  2. Patricia Nabti March 3, 2019 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Thank you for such a wonderful tribute, Andy. I feel very bad that I didn’t reach out to her when I learned of her illness. Like so many others in the field of volunteerism, she was an important mentor for me, and I am grateful that I had a few occasions to meet her personally, usually at conferences on volunteerism in the US. She encouraged me to write a number of articles for Energize, Inc., and she promoted my book on developing school service programs. As you note – she really wanted to do whatever she could to encourage and empower others in the field of volunteerism – not just promote herself. My training presentations are filled with resources from Susan. She will be terribly missed, but her legacy will live on as long as there are volunteers and professionals in volunteerism.

    • Andy Fryar March 5, 2019 at 3:13 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Patricia

  3. Dana Wiley March 1, 2019 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Andy, What am amazing tribute showing the whole person and life of Susan. I had the great pleasure of working with her, and the amazing staff team of Kristi Floyd and Cara Thenot to help launch and work for 8 years on the Everyone Ready online volunteer management training program! I do believe she is one of the smartest people I have ever worked with and one who not only cared so deeply about the volunteer management field but also social justice issues. May she rest in peace knowing the incredible legacy she has left behind through mentoring, training, setting up her foundation to keep this important field informed! All best to you, Betty Stallings, Steve Curley, Carol Weisman, Martin Cowling, and so many others who contributed greatly to this work!!

    • Andy Fryar March 1, 2019 at 9:06 pm - Reply

      Thanks Dana

  4. DJ Cronin February 28, 2019 at 3:29 am - Reply

    Hi Andy

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute. It would have been hard to write as I know how close you were.

    I first met Susan at the same time I first met you Andy and that was at the Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management in Canberra many moons ago. Having you, Martin Cowling and Susan together seemed like the dream team to me!
    Susan was amazing and inspiring then and continued to be for the rest of her rich lifetime.

    Her passing has made me pause to remember the wonderful people we meet through our involvement in Volunteerism through the years. We may not always agree with everything but I have cherished the many encounters I have had with inspiring people. So many of the people commenting here I have connected with in some way.

    Moments like this give way to reflection on what is important in life. We are all on the same journey to make an impact and to better peoples circumstances in life.

    Susan would want us to continue seeking connection, to continue to reach out and support each other, to continue to be a voice for the sector.

    Susan showed us that we can all have an impact, that the work that we all do makes a difference and that a life seeking to help others is a life well lived.

    Thank you Andy and colleagues for all that you do. And thank you Andy for sharing your precious memories.



    • Andy Fryar February 28, 2019 at 3:41 am - Reply

      Thanks DJ

  5. Stuart Garland February 27, 2019 at 8:19 am - Reply

    Eloquent and well written, thanks for this insight into the legend that was Susan. A true inspiration to so many and thanks for sharing those time together. It just copper fastens everything those of us lucky to meet her felt

  6. Angela Williamson February 27, 2019 at 2:06 am - Reply

    Thank you for your wonderful way of sharing a glimpse into this amazing human being, who cared so incredibly deeply about people and the force for good we can all be. May we all be inspired to continue in her footsteps, and forge a few new ones.

  7. Betty Stallings February 26, 2019 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    Hey, Andy
    I hope it is okay with you to share this wonderful memorial of Susan with the Wall Street Journal who just called me. They are putting an obituary of Susan in their newspaper. I told them she should be the front page story for her impact on the world and told them a bit about her legacy which will include a Foundation. You had great stories and the international reach. They will love it. Thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute. She adored you and your family!!!!!!!!

    • Andy Fryar February 26, 2019 at 10:19 pm - Reply

      Of course that is OK Betty – her story should be told far and wide

  8. Sue Hine February 26, 2019 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    You speak from the heart Andy, and thank you for sharing your story. You end with “Her legacy must be that we all stand up and speak out when we see a ‘wrong’ being committed to volunteerism”. YES!!! There is still much to be put to ‘rights’.

  9. Carol Weisman February 26, 2019 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    What a brilliant tribute to our dear friend. The one thing I didn’t know is that we were both enamored of Hugh Jackman. I am so glad we never had to fight it out for his affections.

    You captured Susan’s tenacity, love of your family, since the Holocaust cost her so many relatives and her love of volunteerism and travel.

    It is a brash and uncaring thing to say in light of the enormous loss of such a special friend, but now I have Hugh all to myself!

  10. Erin Spink February 26, 2019 at 3:44 am - Reply

    Andy- I love this. You’ve captured Susan so well and with such obvious love and respect.
    What a gift to have so many wonderful memories of a cherished friendship.
    Sending you hugs.

  11. Patty Wright February 26, 2019 at 1:41 am - Reply

    This was a thorough and touching tribute. I was also a beneficiary of Susan’s self driving historical tour of Philadelphia. Every time I pass that lighted row houses, I think of her. And I also wholeheartedly agree with her parallel parking skills.
    A moving piece, Andy.
    Thank you,

  12. Melissa Heinlein Storti February 26, 2019 at 12:55 am - Reply

    Andy – beautifully captured about Susan. With each person who is writing about her, I’ve learned a bit more about her. We all have that “Susan story” and you have many to share with the field, the world. Thank you for sharing this. She is forever in so many hearts.

    Melissa Heinlein Storti
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA

  13. Heidi February 26, 2019 at 12:55 am - Reply

    Lovely tribute, my Aussie friend. The volunteer world is indeed short of one stalwart promoter. Now you know how I felt, pushing SEND as my email to you requested your appearance at the first volunteer leader’s conference I was asked to see if you’d lead for us.

    Be well. Continue doing the good work you do.

    • Andy Fryar February 26, 2019 at 1:00 am - Reply

      Thanks Heidi – that’s very kind of you

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