Oh, Susanna Part I

The old line “Behind every successful man stands a woman” has never been truer than it is at The Windsor Institute.  In his book Setting Up Shop  Sandor Nagyszalanczy  bestowed on me the title “King of Windsor” and we have a lot of fun with that around here.  However, anyone who has studied at The Institute knows the real power behind the throne.  It is my wife Susanna Dunbar.  

It is curious that a person who has made such a significant contribution to woodworking in general and Windsor chairmaking specifically, has no interest in either.   Yet, she is responsible for putting bread on more woodworkers’ tables than anyone else I know.   I think it is worth my while and yours for me to introduce you to someone who has made, and continue to makes, such an important contribution.   

As everyone who studies here knows, I love to tell a story.  I knew about Susanna before I ever met her. Most people are not aware that once upon a time I was very active in politics.  In 1990 I was an adviser to a congressional candidate.  The guy was brilliant, well-connected, with all the right endorsements.  He was heavily favored to win.   

His opponent was a glib glad-hander, and no bright bulb.   However, at every turn in the campaign, we were trumped.  The dim bulb was running circles around us.  I knew he didn’t have the brains to do this himself and so,  I made inquiries into who was running his campaign.  I learned it was a woman from Hampton who had previously worked for the governor, but who had started her own marketing and consulting business.   Her name was Susanna Tetlow.  

My guy lost by about 350 votes. We lapped our wounds while Susanna’s guy went to Washington with the word Honorable in front of his name.   My next job was running a campaign for a guy running for state senator.  The party’s senate campaign director suggested I meet with the person running the campaign in the neighboring district.  The idea was for us to share resources and so, he set up an appointment for the person to visit me.     

That blasted woman from Hampton walked right into my kitchen.  After recovering from the shock that I was now working with the woman who had cleaned my clock in the last election, I got down to the subject at hand.  I explained my candidate’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.   She had me get a piece of paper and start writing.  As she threw out ideas I put them into words. An absolutely brilliant advertising campaign developed in minutes  right on my kitchen table.  We went on to work in many other campaigns and ballot initiatives together.  Sometimes Susanna would bring me in to help her, and visa versa.   

I once heard a radio psychiatrist call love “a friendship that caught fire.”  It is true.  Susanna and I first became very good friends.  Our friendship was forged and tested in the very nasty arena of politics, where everyone is out for himself, and few people can be trusted.  I found I could always trust Susanna, and she found I would always have her back.  In our conversations I also learned she was not a typical political hack.  She really had values, and believed in right and wrong.  I eventually  married her.  

In 1992 our son was born.  We had decided Susanna would be a stay-at-home mom and except for the  occasional project too good to pass up; she had closed down her business.  Within days of Michael’s birth I went off to Detroit to teach a week-long sack back class.  I came home for a couple of days and flew up to Halifax to speak.  I phoned Susanna from Nova Scotia and said I did not want to do this work anymore.  I would get a job so I could stay home with her and the baby.  She told me to hang in there, as she had been working on an idea.  

When I returned, Susanna told me she wanted to start a school.  I was overwhelmed.  I could teach very well, but what did I know about running a school?  The more she explained, the more I too, began to see.  The vision of an institute that I wrote about in an earlier post began to take shape.  We rented a space in Portsmouth.  We grew so fast the first year we knew we could not stay in that location much longer.  Susanna began searching for land where we could build a larger building designed around our vision.  

To understand Susanna and her contribution to woodworking in general and chairmaking specifically you need to understand that the woman is a study in contrast.  She is an iron fist in a velvet glove.  Her resolve is absolutely irresistible.  However, she is also very much a lady, and is notable for her compassion and generosity.  Two stories say it all.   

The Iron Fist — We built our first building during fall/winter 1995. We had established with the contractor before hand that he would be done by late December, as our lease in Portsmouth expired on December 31.  It was a very snowy year. We discovered that when it snows, contractors plow rather than build buildings,  or worry about details like schedules.  Our crew was falling way behind.  When Susanna addressed it, the builder blamed the problem on the short days, rather than the days missed when they were all plowing.  He explained that in December the sun goes down around 4:15 and no longer able see to work, the crew knocked off early.  After that, every afternoon at 4:00, with Michael in a car seat, Susanna parked out front of the building and illuminated it with her headlights.  She would not permit a bunch of hard bitten carpenters to leave the job site before 5:30.  We moved into our new building on time.  I have told Michael (now a teenager) that although his mother is only five feet tall, she can only be described as a force of nature. 

The Velvet Glove – Susanna runs a lot of errands for the business and this involves driving  from one location to another around town.  During her day she deals with a lot of people society normally thinks of as insignificant: counter help, drive through attendants, cashiers, etc. Without prompting, these people spontaneously open up their lives to her, often spilling out the most intimate, tragic, or troubling details.  Strangers waiting in a checkout line or pushing a cart next to hers in a grocery store do the same.  It is bizarre.  Michael and I joke that she has “Tell me your woes.” tattooed on her forehead.   

I suspect these people sense Susanna’s innate goodness, kindness, compassion, and helpfulness.  Whatever the explanation, the details of their lives certainly come bubbling out.  Susanna always listens, commiserates, advises, and comforts.  She truly cares about these people.  This side bar illustrates her concern.  One of Susanna’s people is a young, hard-working Romanian immigrant who works at a car wash.   He has lived very frugally so as to be able to bring his girl friend over here so they could marry.  He succeeded. As the couple’s wedding day approached he proudly told Susanna about their reception.  He had reserved a function room at The Old Salt restaurant here in town, and right up to the last minute he was still saving so he could pay for it. On her way home, Susanna stopped at the Old Salt and anonymously paid for the couple’s reception so he could use the money he had saved to start out in life.   I could tell you many similar stories.  

To be continued in  next week’s post.

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