By the end of her freshman year at Kalamazoo College, Susan Schroeder Larson ’63 was 18 years old and preparing to cross the ocean to study in France. It was 1960. Her summer study abroad was under the Light Scholarship Program, a precursor to the K-Plan.
“It was during my sophomore year at K that we all began to hear about this wonderful new program on the horizon,” recalls Larson. When the K-Plan was implemented the following year, I began to imagine exciting possibilities for a senior quarter off campus, what is now called the Senior Individualized Project, or SIP.”
Susan was an English major, minoring in French, but she also had a strong presence in theatre arts, catching the eye of Nelda Balch, theatre professor and namesake for the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse.
Even as the K-Plan was developing, Larson’s years at K followed the guidelines of learning that went deeper and broader, including several on- and off-campus experiential learning experiences and jobs.
Larson worked in alumni relations, where “I learned about fundraising and friend-raising.” She worked in the dean’s office, typing speeches. “That was a good job, working for Dr. Lloyd Averill for two years. Working with him was enlightening and influential later in life. I worked for the Dean of Women, and in the summer, I worked in the financial office. I got to know President Hicks’ secretary, and once when I was too busy to get a paper typed up, she typed it up for me. It pays to have friends in high places!”
Larson laughs, but it’s all part of her K experience, she says: people who care about each other, professors and staff who nurture students in their education and are ready to lend a helping hand.
Nelda Balch was one such nurturing professor for Susan. She saw acting talent in Susan and encouraged the young woman to work on developing it.
“I never considered changing my major to theatre arts,” Susan admits. “But I enjoyed being a part of theatre. I tried out for the part of Anne Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor in my freshman year, and I got the part. I had no idea what I was doing. Not a clue. I didn’t know much about Shakespeare, either, but oh, I had a good time!”
Susan laughs. “I was hooked on theatre from then on. I played an innocent girl—because I was. I didn’t know what cuckolding meant until after the play was done. We trusted Mrs. Balch and just did as we were told.”
Balch encouraged Susan to pursue theatre arts and suggested studying the Theatre of the Absurd in New York for her SIP. Susan went west instead of east and during the winter quarter studied Elizabethan drama at the University of Chicago. While immensely enjoying her time on stage, she wasn’t convinced she had the makings of the great actress Balch seemed to see in her.
“I think she may have been disappointed in my career choices,” Larson says. “I taught English and French in Chicago and earned my master’s in English at the University of Chicago.”
Other fond memories of her years at K return.
“Dr. Richard Stavig was my advisor and also the head of the study abroad program when I went to France in 1960. Not only was he a gifted teacher of American literature, he was also a trusted friend who ‘socialized’ us by inviting a group of about six students for monthly Sunday suppers in his home where after dinner we discussed various topics—some heavy, some light, usually values-laden. That experience of seeing our professors as people was important at K. I remember going to the homes of Dr. Walter Waring, Dr. Lester Start, Dr. Paul Collins, and Dr. Lloyd Averill for similar events. It was an enriching experience.”
In her sophomore year Susan served as the business manager for the yearbook, The Boiling Pot, and the following year was made editor. “Being the editor was a formative experience that helped me develop organizational and leadership skills. I still enjoy all aspects of creating publications, from gathering ideas to writing to editing to graphic design.”
And then there was that other K College student—the junior who worked as a lab assistant in Susan’s freshman zoology class. He took his duties very seriously, never smiling. She wasn’t at all sure she liked him. Probably not. Then again …
Susan says: “The team of lab assistants would prepare an exam with stations in the lab then dramatically unlock the doors and let us in to move from station to station answering questions about each specimen. As a non-scientist, I found this process intimidating. Now David [Larson ’61] jokes that he taught me everything I know about the anatomy of the frog, but I blamed the C I got in that class (my first ever) on the impossible exams he and his team gave.”
The two did not meet again in any meaningful way while at Kalamazoo College, but chance, or destiny, wasn’t letting go that easy. They met again far off campus, at the entrance to a park on Lake Michigan in Chicago. It was a sunny summer day in 1965. David was then in his third year at medical school at the University of Chicago.
Susan smiles. “And the rest is history,” she says. They married in 1967.
Kalamazoo College laid the groundwork for Larson’s life, on professional as well as personal levels. David went on to become a physician, and Susan taught in two Chicago high schools.
“I was initially assigned to a school on the far south side. I was there two years and during that time started a drama club. The students produced a play attended by the whole community.” Then Susan requested a move to Hyde Park, the neighborhood where she lived. “It was a tumultuous time, the mid-‘60s. Gang warfare and the construction of a new high school caused the enrollment to drop precipitously and the few remaining white students to leave. The year 1968 was particularly challenging with the death of Dr. King, announced during a school day. School closed and riots erupted throughout Chicago. That summer David and I witnessed the demonstrations in Grant Park around the Democratic Convention downtown. A year later I left Hyde Park High for the birth of our daughter Jennifer. “
The young family moved to Albuquerque for David to complete his internal medicine residency, while Susan taught English in several Indian pueblos around Albuquerque. Their son Samuel was born in New Mexico. When the residency concluded, the Larsons moved to the mountains of western North Carolina, a rural area where there was a great need for a well-trained internist. Penland School of Crafts was nearby as well, a magnet for Susan to develop her skills.
“David started his practice while I searched for my own identity,” says Susan. “I wanted to be more than Dr. Larson’s wife.”
When her brother-in-law invited her to come along to a local arts council meeting, something stirred in Susan. This was the world of the arts, a world Susan had grown to love in her years at K, and she wanted to be involved again. Before long, she was elected as the first president and then the first executive director of the Toe River Arts Council.
“Theatre came back into my life, as well as all the performing arts,” says Susan. “For 12 years, I ran the nonprofit arts council, raised funds, organized classes, and sponsored performing arts events —from dance to bluegrass to theatre to storytelling. Our main thrust was to bring the arts into schools, and so I started the Mountain Arts Program. It began in two counties and eventually spread over 17 counties.”
Her subsequent community involvements span the arts, education, human services, and health care. Susan sat (and sits) on many boards, and her efforts were noticed and well appreciated. She earned The President’s Award from the North Carolina Association of Arts Councils, the Governor’s Award for Yancey County Volunteer in Education, was a participant in Leadership North Carolina, and earned certificates of appreciation for fundraising from various organizations and academic institutions. She served four terms on the board of the famed Penland School of Crafts and is currently on their development committee.
The Larsons left the mountains for the Piedmont in 1991, where David became a faculty member at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Susan became the Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “I was there more than 15 years, raising money for the university. I loved being in academia and even dabbled in the sciences, both as part of my job and in the classes I took to earn a Masters in Liberal Studies. I especially liked the access the university gave me to the arts, the Weatherspoon Art Museum, excellent theatre, and music. I think people see me as a fundraiser, but in my heart, I feel like I am a connector of people, causes, ideas, and the arts.”
Retirement came a little more than five years ago, but keeping up with Susan continues to be a challenge. The Larsons have moved back to Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where they live on 75 wooded acres.
“It’s beautiful, but frankly, I’m not an outdoors person,” Susan laughs. “David wanted to be in the country, but I live in these connections that I make, and in making things happen in the community. If something isn’t happening that I think should happen, well, I try to make it happen. That’s what Kalamazoo College did for me. I am a lifelong learner. I’m still learning. A liberal arts program is so varied. It opens everything up to you.
“I find myself organizing events in the way that Mrs. Balch did back at K,” Larson continues. “I modeled programs after some we had at K.”
For example, Larson says, when she wanted to help organize a mentorship program at UNC-Greensboro, she contacted Pam Sotherland, program data manager at K’s Center for Career Development, to help her develop the program on the model used at K to connect alumni mentors with current students.
“It makes a nice circle,” Larson says thoughtfully. “Maybe Mrs. Balch would have been proud of me, after all.”