Apr 18, 2012 Neil Benjamin Jr. Uncategorized
When this story hits the newsstands, Steve Susman will be living it up in Italy — Venice to be exact.
Maybe he’ll think about his life accomplishments in his lengthy professional career, or maybe he’ll ponder the next step in his life. Or maybe, just maybe, he’ll reminisce about the time he got to jam with Bob Dylan in Manhattan.
In the early 1960s, Susman was a guitarist and banjo player in a band known as the Trevone Marching Jug and Shuffle Band, which took influence from the folk music that was popular at the time. Susman said it wasn’t a serious venture, but rather an outlet for some of his creative juices.
In 1963, he says, his band, which “usually cleaned up” (meaning they played at the very end of the bill after the more popular bands) was readying for a gig in the village in Manhattan. After a few mildly successful performances in Washington Square Park, Susman said this was a step up for the group. The band needed a place to rehearse while the other groups on the bill were performing, so they went to the basement of the club to set up.
There, standing with guitar in hand, was a man who would become known as one of the greatest artists in the history of music. But at that time, few had heard of Dylan and his raspy voice and twangy guitar playing. Susman’s band started playing with Dylan, backing him up on some songs, and Susman, who says the memory is a bit hazy, does have some recollection of Dylan.
“We had no idea, really, who this guy was,” Susman, sitting on the second floor of the Westcott, said, stroking his salt-and-pepper beard. “I remember that he wasn’t all that friendly to us. I think his mind was elsewhere. He was preparing to perform.”
The way Susman — who’s married with two children — told the Dylan story basically sums up his personality: he’s a laid-back guy rife with ideas who tends not to over-think anything, and is confident in what he does and the decisions he makes. He’ll tell you that, and so will the people close to him.
His early career
Consider his Italy excursion the culmination of what Susman and his co-workers say are 12 highly successful years as executive director of the Westcott Community Center, a place where people of any income level can go and seek help, shelter, a meal — you name it, the Westcott can find a way to help you with it.
Susman is 67 and is finally setting sail off into retirement after a marathon career that began in New York City. Born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, Susman soon moved to Manhattan to as a film editor, a job he held through the mid-’70s. He obtained his degree in film and photography from what is now called Excelsior College, all while enjoying the psychedelia and rock and roll of the time: Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, etc., are just some of his favorites.
In 1974, Susman moved to Syracuse with a group of cohorts — he was already familiar with the area due to numerous visits here to see friends who attended local colleges. Though Syracuse is a city, don’t tell that to Susman.
“I felt like moving here [from NYC] was like moving to the country,” he said. “There’s clean air here, no traffic and no crime when you compare it to New York City.”
He held multiple jobs here at Arc, a place that assists people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, before earning a job at Hutchings Psychiatric Center, where his title was workshop specialist. He stayed there for nearly seven years.
His only complaint about Syracuse was that there was a lack of Chinese food restaurants.
“I had to learn how to cook,” he said.
That led to him and a friend running a catering business on the side.
The Westcott days
After leaving Hutchings, Susman started a web development company, before he saw an ad in the paper for executive director of the Westcott.
“I had attended events there before,” he said. “I had some familiarity with it. It’s a job that, I felt, took all the previous life and job skills I possessed and used them.”
He was unfamiliar with some things, though. He admits he had never written a grant before, something that is the lifeblood of a community center, seeing as up to 80 percent of funding comes from the state.
He said in previous jobs he became keen on “talking people out of their money,” and that he grew creative in his ways of getting what’s needed.
“I learned about the rules and regulations at Hutchings,” he said. “The most important thing is patience because the state moves very slowly. The creativity helped me know how to manipulate what I need to make the wheels turn slowly in our direction.”
When he started at the Westcott there weren’t any full-time employees, so he sat down with former president of the board Mark Wright, who is since deceased, and decided someone needed to be brought in to help. The hire was for facility maintenance.
He said the Westcott’s reputation continued to grow in the neighborhood, and in the city. The next goal was to figure out a way to keep all the unfunded programs running, which is probably where Susman leaves his biggest legacy.
For instance, he helped save the Senior Lunch Program, as well as the Adult GED Program — he convinced the Syracuse City Schools to allow one teacher to come and teach the classes — and also helped Say Yes! To Education keep moving forward.
“You never know what the outcomes are going to be, but you always have to embrace them,” Susman said.
He secured a grant to keep the youth program Kids’ Club going, but that funding has been declining in recent years. A few years ago, the program served 45 children. Last year, the Westcott was able to offer just 35 children its services. Susman added that he’s hopeful the funding will be restored to the 2010 level at some point this year, and that talks are happening to set it in motion.
Renee Murray is the assistant executive director and has worked with Susman for the last eight years. She started out as a bookkeeper after moving to the city from Long Island — her endearing yet playfully forceful accent will attest — and, as she says, “slipped into” her current role.
“When I met Steve, I knew right away that I could work for him and also learn a ton from him,” she said. “I wasn’t sure at first I was assistant director material, but Steve groomed me and helped me grow into who I am today. He’s my mentor, my best friend.
“[The people in and around the center] call us the old married couple.”
She added that Susman always knows what to do and that he has a vision for everything.
“You know the saying What Would Jesus Do? It’s not like that here. It’s What Would Steve Do,” Murray added. “He listens to everyone. He really lends his ear to anyone who needs it. He’s great.”
When asked what she will miss the most about Susman, Murray, for the first time in the interview, didn’t immediately respond. She was unsure how to sum it up in a few sentences considering what Susman has meant to her and the center.
“His sincere friendship,” she said. “I’m really going to miss it all: his ear, his friendship, everything about him. There is never a stupid question to Steve. He answers them all. He’s not my boss, he’s my life mentor.”
Susman might be the definition of stoic. He doesn’t get too up nor does he get too down. That quality was tested in December, when he found out an electrical fire did enough damage to force him and his family to go live in a hotel apartment. He said they are scheduled to move back into the house, which is almost fully repaired, in a few weeks.
“It was devastating,” he said. “A neighbor saw the flames and called the fire department. We lost a lot of stuff, and when my son-in-law, who was in the attic at the time, saw the damage that was occurring, he immediately passed out and had to be carried out of the house.”
No one was hurt, said Susman, who was working away at the Westcott when the fire blazed.
He’s not one to cry over lost possessions, but he was sad for his son, who lost almost all of his electronics. The house was trashed from smoke damage, and from the firefighters trying to control the blaze.
Susman has two cherished guitars — a 1963 Martin and 1965 Gibson, both acoustic — that he asked firefighters to try and recover. Luckily, there was minimal damage and both guitars can be fixed. To paint a picture of how bad the fire was, Susman said his son-in-law’s electric Gibson Les Paul was untouched, but the case that held it completely disintegrated.
Like the forward-thinker his co-workers say he is, Susman didn’t dwell on the past and didn’t seem too upset over what happened to his house.
“We’re essentially moving into a brand-new house,” he said.
Susman said he’s received offers for grant writer positions, but hasn’t decided just what the next part of his life will entail. For now, he’s going to help the center transition to the new director and do all he can to enjoy his life.
“There’s still a lot of life left. I love nature, so I’d like to spend a lot of time outdoors,” he said, adding he used to be a nature photographer and has driven across Canada four times taking pictures.
“Everything comes so naturally for him,” Murray said. “He’ll have no trouble in the next phase.”
Neil Benjamin Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.