by Jan Robbins
From the time she contracted polio at four years of age, Susan Suval has never let the disease that took the use of her right leg define her life.
“My mother thought she’d have to take care of me her whole life,” said Suval, now 73. “I proved her wrong.”
Suval’s mother fought to send her to a public school, where she developed the skills to fight for herself.
“They wanted to put me in a special education class. My mother said, ‘It’s her leg that’s paralyzed, not her brain.’ That set them straight,” Suval said.
Her mother wheeled her to school in a wagon, where she took over and walked with the assistance of a brace and crutches.
From that time on, Suval demonstrated the spitfire and grit that motivated her in school, gave her an adventuresome spirit – and led her to marry, raise a family and become incredibly active in her community.
When her kids were young, she joined their nursery school board. That led to membership in the local PTA, and then the San Francisco District PTA. Then, she turned her sights back to her Sunset District neighborhood, where she helped organize its first community coalition.
In 2003, Suval was honored by the SF Board of Supervisors as a “woman making history” in District 4. Later, “to keep from getting bored,” she joined the Sunset Community Democratic Club, becoming its president in 1998. More recently, she helped organize the Park Merced Action coalition.
She was born in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, but grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. The family moved there shortly after World War II so her father could work in his family’s contractor business.
Suval was easily accepted by her schoolmates. She could not play sports but she could participate as scorekeeper. She could bat in softball, having another kid run the bases. She always exhibited a “can do attitude.”
“Everyone knew someone who had polio. It wasn’t such a big deal,” said Suval.
In 1963, Suval decided to attend a small Lutheran liberal arts college, Gustavus Adolphus, in St. Peter, Minnesota.
“From watching Perry Mason on TV, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. My advisor just laughed at me,” she said.
But while reconnecting with friends in Omaha, Suval decided to transfer to the University of Nebraska, where her interests led her to take a semester of library science in graduate school.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, and I didn’t want to study as hard as pre-law demanded,” she said.
But, in the ’60s the adventurer bug bit her and she sought new horizons in a new locale. After considering Kansas City and Minneapolis, she settled in San Francisco, where she has lived ever since.
“I came in the spring of 1968. I didn’t have a clue about the 1967 ‘summer of love’ before I arrived,” Suval said.
Suval got a job as a librarian in the marketing research department of the P&O Steamship Navigation Company. She wanted to continue her library science education, but she could not afford the out-of-state tuition at the University of California, Berkeley. There were few other options at the time, she said.
Meanwhile, she met her future husband, Bob, who was also employed at the steamship company.
“He was from Brooklyn. I liked his accent. He was on the quiet side but had a great sense of humor,” she said.
The couple married in 1972, and when P&O moved its offices to Los Angeles Bob took a job with an auto glass company, and Suval started working part-time.
She became so impassioned with textiles that she started taking weaving lessons. Over the next 15 years, Suval mastered the art of weaving to the point where she was exhibiting and selling wearables and wall-hangings.
The couple’s son, Adam, was born in 1979. Two years later, twin girls, Sarah and Rebecca, joined the family.
“I am sure weaving helped me retain my sanity when I was dealing with three children under three,” she said.
At this time the Suval family was living in a rented home near Ocean Beach in the Sunset District.
As soon as her children entered the Sunset Cooperative Nursery School, Suval became board treasurer. That was her first step toward a life-long involvement with children and youth issues and education.
She also joined the PTA, volunteering in the classroom and writing the PTA’s newsletter. Soon thereafter, Suval worked to develop several curriculum enrichment projects and secure funding grants. The project she is most proud of was a redesign and reorganization of the school’s library.
Suval also worked on several projects with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, an organization that supports low-income families. She served on its board until 2011, and was honored by the organization on its 20th anniversary.
Because she was always looking for new ways to contribute, Suval’s interest widened to the Sunset community.
“I always seemed to need to have something else on my plate,” she said.
Suval helped organize the Sunset District Neighborhood Coalition and was the chair from 2000 to about four years ago. In an effort to organize the Sunset’s large, ethnically diverse population, the coalition established the first Sunset Community Festival in 1994.
“It was the skills I developed with the PTA that gave me the confidence to contribute to the development of the Sunset District Neighborhood Coalition,” she said.
Suval was also involved with a youth-serving cooperative that evolved into the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center and Sunset Youth Services. She was also on the development board of NeighborNet, a communication strategy for the southwestern communities in San Francisco.
Suval thinks one of the reasons she became a community organizer was because she wanted “to get the job done.”
Her strong Midwestern sense of self-reliance kept her from going to an orthopedist for years. She avoided wheelchairs and devised her own method of using crutches: A regular crutch under her right arm and a Canadian forearm crutch under her left arm, which kept her right arm free.
After her husband died of heart problems at 60 years of age in 2002, she used a wheelchair for the first time.
It was her can-do attitude that helped her through his death and other challenges in life.
After a battle with her landlord, Suval moved to Parkmerced in 2009. A roommate from San Francisco State University helps pay the rent.
And, as is the modus operandi of Suval, she became active in forming the Park Merced Action Coalition, a residents group, and became its vice-president.
In March, her independent living was interrupted by a fall she took getting out of bed.
“I am so happy to have friends and family to count on,” Suval said.
Expect to see Suval back soon in her electric wheelchair, escorting her granddaughters to the neighborhood playground and continuing her work serving the community.