Susan Veatch Cantrell Remembered by Close Friends

by Kenneth R. Barker

January 22, 2008

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Remembering Susan Veatch Cantrell by Kenneth R. Barker

If you knew Susan even halfway well, you knew that not halfway, but all the way, she was a capital R Romantic—congenitally; fierce about it, and not remotely curable. In fact, if it were not too gruesome for contemporary sensibilities, I think she would have directed that her heart be divided into four pieces and interred, one each, in Crawfordsville, New York, and Paris, France, with perhaps the final portion to find rest at the geographical center of the compound at Hyannis Port. Rose Kennedy would just have had to move over. We all savored her infectious laugh, we all felt the warmth of that magical, sunny smile that had not one trace of falseness in it, and we all knew that she was in love with life.

There is a story passed on by Marty and Pauline Veatch, that when they went to the Coleman Home in Indianapolis in late 1944, they picked the runt of the litter — the smallest baby girl there on that day of adoption. Marty and Pauline weren’t yet aware of the steely determination with which this child grabbed on, nor did they know what Susan knew throughout her childhood — that she was in truth, of course, a Royal Princess, destined for a responsible role in maintaining the world. 

Some of you might remember that back in 1989, along with such quality company as Senator Bill Bradley and Wabash’s Robert Allen (who was then chairman of AT&T), Susan was featured in a long, nationally-syndicated article about only children. Here’s how they quoted her: 

"I always thought the myth of the spoiled only child was a lot of bunk. Being an only child was definitely a benefit. I always had the capacity to entertain myself. It also made me self-sufficient and responsible. When you grow up an only child, you can’t ever blame someone else in the house when you screw up. At the same time, I was entrusted with a lot of information and attention from my father, who was good at a lot of things, especially money, and he taught me what he knew. Because I was an only child, he could spend a lot of time with me. He didn’t want me to grow up to be an imbecile." 

Now if that’s not the Queen speaking — or at least some variety of latter-day princess — then I can’t tell water from Kahlua.

Now it’s impossible to speak of Susan’s "inner princess" without also speaking of her voice. By the time she was three, Marty and Pauline Veatch knew that they had an extraordinary child. By the age of three she had a voice like a bell. Pauline drove her to Indianapolis week after week for lessons, and she sang everywhere locally. I think her love affair with Wabash must have begun clear back in high school when she had the lead in the Wabash College production of Guys and Dolls. When she and my wife, Sarah, were roommates working together in Senator Charles Percy’s office in Washington, people urged Susan, with Sarah in a supporting role (strong supporting role, Sarah), to make a record, and they actually cut a long-playing vinyl album together called Susan and Sarah. It sold all of 500 copies, so the proceeds unfortunately were not large enough for either of them to buy a Mercedes.

You’ll hear Susan sing from that album today during the recessional, and I don’t know what the impression will be from that old recording, but I know this: when you go to a concert, and you hear a great warm-up act, and then the headliner strides on and begins to sing, something happens. There is an expression in critical literature called "artistic arrest." It’s used to describe what happens to you inside when suddenly you come across something so indescribably beautiful that everything in you stops. You become instantly alert; you straighten up, you prick up your ears, and you pay attention. 

I first heard Susan sing live back when we were both in our mid-to-late twenties, and that’s what happened. Later on I discovered that as a sophomore music major at Indiana University, she decided that a career in music was not what she wanted. It was the 60’s, and she wanted to be where the action was: in politics and in government. And when she went to her renowned voice teacher, and gave him that news, her professor broke down, and cried. By the time I heard that story, I had heard her perform live several times, and I understood the feelings of that poor professor.

But those of you who really knew Susan can hardly be surprised at the jilting she gave the voice professor. She was a person who always knew exactly what she wanted, and when she wanted something, she went after it. She went directly from Bloomington to D.C. with no connections and took the first job she could get, which improbably was as a librarian in a mobile library truck. That she quit with no other job prospects in sight once she’d had it with the bookmobile; then she joined the staff of a Republican — God forbid — Senator as a menial, and before you knew it she was writing the speeches of one of the then most powerful and respected men on the Hill — that Republican — Charles Percy of Illinois. 

But that story — the discovery of the writing talent that eventually took her all the way to her own weekly news interview program at WCBS radio in New York, and to national awards and board memberships and first-name friendships with people like Mario Cuomo, then Governor of New York, and Henry Heimlich of the Heimlich Maneuver, and so many others — that story never really diverges from her early identity as an arresting singer. Because in every incarnation, Susan really was an artist. 

She was a supreme artist at friendship—really, I always thought, she had a kind of genius for being receptive and fiercely loyal and trustworthy—for being a liberating, health-giving presence. She was certainly an artist on the radio. After she left New York, many listeners in the City pined for her and sent her letters. In response, WCBS did a special interview about how she was tolerating it out here in the deprivation of Crawfordsville, and one fan--a deli owner who heard the interview--felt so sorry for her here in the wilderness that he send out a jar of mustard, two loaves of rye, and a whole slab of New York pastrami with instructions for reheating. She knew and loved a whole range of finer things, and indeed, I will be forever grateful that at the Drake Hotel in Chicago in the early 70’s, she was the person who introduced me to dried chocolate-covered apricots. She was an artist at Wabash—for twenty years she wrote every official citation at the college; all the honorary degrees, all the honorary alumni citations, the alumni awards of merit, the speeches for three Wabash presidents. She was an artist in decorating her homes. From Picasso to Georgia O’Keefe to Laura Ashley, Susan had an eye. And one other artistic thing she had was a temperament: she could get angry like Maria Callas at the Met. And when she felt provoked, no New York cab driver could do her significantly better.

What you saw in her consistently was passion. She brought flaming, dancing passion to this feast of life, so she knew very well Shouts and Groans and Joys and Curses, and it was the experience of those oppositions — the ecstasies and the agonies — that made her feel truly alive. Now the calmer, more phlegmatic, maybe even contemplative, types among us find it extremely uncomfortable to live with the levels of passion that Susan fed upon. But for her, to walk a completely level path — no soaring highs, no weeping lows, just peace — would have been a crashing, suffocating, intolerable bore. Those of you who went to high school with her could attest to that in livid detail. 

I’ll give you this story as a metaphor of her approach to life. Years ago, one of our daughters was applying for an award or a scholarship of some kind — I’ve forgotten the details — and our daughter asked her to write a letter of recommendation. Susan of course wrote a great letter, and then she sent us a revised, mock copy. After averring that our daughter was without doubt the finest human being in the world, it ended like this: "And if you don’t give her exactly what she wants, I am going to come over there personally and…gouge out your eyes with a plastic fork. Best Wishes, Susan Veatch Cantrell."

Now that leads me to another aspect of her personality. Wonderful, warm, laughing Susan could also be very, very tough. And that toughness was buttressed by a capacity in her — surprising, given her passion and loyalty — to perceive very clearly and straightforwardly what was going on around her. It was that capacity, I think, that gave her such power as a radio editorialist, both at WBBM in Chicago and at WCBS in New York. The political people loved her because she kept a keen eye on the real facts, she was hard to con, she asked penetrating questions, and yet she was genuinely open to what they had to say. Unquestionably, Marty Veatch did not raise an imbecile.

And yet, there was another side. I don’t want you not to recognize the person we’re commemorating here. This hard-headed, realistic, passionate romantic had another, very contrary capacity. Those of us close to her saw it fully fledged as we watched that long decline into illness these last few years. In short, Susan had absolutely Herculean powers of Denial. Those of you who were close to her will have your own stories, but let me tell you this one. A month and a half ago, when she and Jim were closing out the big house on Sugar Cliff Drive, we all came to work around the place while she sat in her wheelchair in the foyer hooked to the oxygen tank; and when it came time to eat, Jim wheeled her out to the car, she managed with considerable difficulty to get in, we drove to over to Little Mexico here in Crawfordsville, got out directly across from the restaurant door, and made the mistake--with one worried person on each side to steady her — of having her walk across the street, up two tiny steps, and over the threshold before she sank six fathoms down back into the wheelchair. Later on I overheard her veritable transfiguration of that event: "Oh, it was absolutely wonderful!" she said to some unknown person on the telephone. "It was the first time I’d been to Little Mexico in a while, and I did so well, I hardly needed any help at all!" 

During one of her hospitalizations last year, I came into her room, and Jim was there, and a nurse came in so he and I stepped out and he brought me up to date on the most recent, not good, news. Then I went back in alone, and said, "How are you doing, Susan?" "Oh, Great! My doctors are so nice, and the nurses are just wonderful, and I feel so much better than I did…," and I said, "You’re lying through your teeth." And in a split second she looked at me with her mother’s hard eye, and said, "Well, yes, but there’s no sense dwelling on it." When she could no longer fight with her body, with her head she still fought on.

You need also to know that this was not the struggle of just one person. Two people struggled throughout all of this. At different levels, and in different ways, two people who were anchors for each other suffered. Without Jim, Susan would almost certainly have spent these last two years in a nursing home, which is not what she wanted; without Jim, she would not in these last few weeks have had the excitement and pleasure and anticipation of planning — and of course, with Laura Ashley, decorating — the new home which she hoped to move into sometime late this month or early next month. The last words she spoke in this world were to him as he went off to work Monday morning; and only two or three hours later, instead of one more big hospital fight, she died, in her own bed, asleep, covers straight and unmussed, with a little smile on her face and the cat actually curled up, snoozing and serenely content at her feet. Oh Susan, you always were so artful!

Linda Leas recently told my wife that Susan said to her a year or so ago, "I want a Catholic funeral; I want a full church; and I want everyone to bawl their eyes out!" I don’t know that we can give her quite all of that, but I would like us to end this eulogy in a special kind of unison. 

In the Romance language family, we all know the Spanish word for "good-bye": adios. And if you break adios into its component parts, it becomes a ("to") -dios ("God"). Now there is a French cognate to adios—looks and sounds almost the same — and the French word, which most of you also know, carries the same double meaning: "good-bye" and "to God." Since part of Susan’s ample heart always was in Paris, when I give this sign, let us end this eulogy together, in the French. She would have liked that. So, sweet, tough, Susan, we bid you… Adieu! Adieu! Sleep well, my dear; sleep well.

 


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