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.
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.
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.
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.
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.