Savannah Morning News
Oct. 9, 2016
Somehow you know the looks, the signs. Or maybe it’s a feeling. You’ve had the conversation – the conversations – before; you know what’s coming. But you don’t want to believe it. La la la. So what’s new? What’s going on? Nice skirt. Nice shoes. Is the campaign season ever going to end? Have you watched “River” on Netflix?
But this isn’t your first rodeo. This isn’t the first time a friend decides they have to up and move out of town. You’re happy for them. You really are. Change is good. Circumstances dictate – in this case proximity to an aging parent. Blah blah blah. But underneath you hate them too. How can you do this to me? Have you thought about me? What about me? Me, me me.
When I started working at the Savannah Morning News I lost several co-workers to other jobs in other cities. We were all more or less at entry level reporting jobs, happy to be there but perfectly poised to move somewhere else, so when somewhere bigger, something closer to family, something closer to what we wanted to do popped up we grabbed it and some of us, like me, got left behind. How dare you? Some folks I kept in contact with, some not.
But others came in and took up the slack. That’s what happened a couple decades ago. One editor moved on and Suzanne Donovan moved in. I noticed her right away. She was over 35 in a newsroom of relative youngsters. She worked through lunch with an apple or an orange next to her keyboard. She was smart, a wordsmith. She was a thinker, a stickler for good work. She challenged her team of reporters. She challenged me.
Then she left. But not the city. She changed direction. She started working at Step Up Savannah in 2007, a poverty initiative challenged to look hard and long and creatively about what to do about the 26 percent of our citizens who live beneath the poverty line. She assisted Daniel Dodd-Ramirez. Then, seven years later, when Dodd-Ramirez left, she took over the position.
By then we were officially friends. We walked around Daffin Park together in the wee hours of the morning, she the fastest walker on the planet, bar none, me sucking air, feeding her with questions so I wouldn’t have to put words together and walk at the same time, praying we could stop after three rounds. We talked of journalism, our mothers and local politics, not in any particular order; celebrated birthdays; brought in several new years’ together; ate latkes at Chanukah parties, chit-chatted at the biannual plant swaps, rode our bikes over to each other’s homes, and devoured her husband Brian’s Italian wedding cake. I met her brother and family and kept up with her nieces, especially the softball player who played semi-professionally in Holland and worked for the San Diego Padres as a bat girl (yes, girls can be bat boys; they can even make spectacular catches behind third base when a batter hits a scorcher her way, which Suzanne’s niece did, an event that went viral).
When I lived in Pittsburgh for a few years – her childhood home – we exchanged letters, handwritten, old style. When I returned for visits, we picked up where we left off with our walks in the misty mornings and quiet neighborhood streets and talked our talk, sometimes snarky, other times philosophical. The friendship deepened. We talked of change and writing and reading. We talked of life. I would never miss Step Up’s annual breakfast meeting, a group that attracts the most diverse group of Savannahians in one room for one purpose – to look at, once again, how we can address poverty and level the playing field in the city.
That same group of disparate people gathered last week in a final shout-out to Suzanne – neighborhood leaders, corporate bigwigs, community organizers, nonprofit types, lawyers, nurses, social workers and worker bees, one of whom whispered to her he turned down a trip to China so he could attend the next annual meeting. Everyone put a cheerful face forward but no one was happy to see this “spark plug” of a human being who understands irony and humor in equal parts leaving the job, leaving the city. The staff gave her a send-off gift of snow shoes for her new life in Minneapolis although at least one person talked about a full-length parka of fur trim for the chic and stylish Suzanne who regularly out-dresses all of us. Oh, they also gave her a day of pampering in a Minneapolis spa. (“Stop it!” said Suzanne, embarrassed, pleased and sad all at once).
She’s a game changer, a seeker of justice, a freedom fighter. She gave everything she had – sometimes 24/7 – with a level of commitment not often seen in our lifetime. She brought people together. She listened. She was strategic in her thinking.
“It’s been a breathtaking ride,” Suzanne said. “Step Up is a family. But poverty, as we know, is still with us. We have not checked it off the list yet.”