Had it not been for Susie Brandscheid, I probably would have been a pretty decent reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.
That thought kept rolling around in my head when I found out she died Wednesday at the age of 70.
Susie was the assistant to the director for UW-Madison’s School of Journalism as well as the graduate student adviser there for decades before retiring a few years back. She also was the keeper of knowledge, the fixer of foul-ups and the soother of students’ battered souls during her decades of service in and around Vilas Hall. Faculty, staff and students sought her advice, her insight and her help each and every day.
She always had the answers we all needed and she seemed to be effortless in her ability to get them for us. It was like having a computer crammed with every conceivable solution to any potential problem mixed with a treasure trove of institutional knowledge.
And she was damned funny, to boot.
She had a special sense of humor that defies explanation. I would camp out in her office whenever possible and trade amusing anecdotes. She would tell me stories about her husband, Pete, a man I never met but whose Quixotic endeavors had me laughing until I cried some days. I would tell her about the weird police-beat stuff I had to cover for the State Journal and she’d turn those dark moments into even darker humor.
There was always something bitingly humorous when it came to Susie. I can still remember one “sympathy” card she had pinned to the cork board on the wall behind her desk. It was black with red lettering that read, “Sorry to hear you’ve been depressed…”
Taped to the inside of the card was a razor blade.
Of all the people who worked in School of Journalism during my six years there, she was the only one I invited to my wedding. She came and it turned out to be another funny story we shared.
About six months after the wedding, I get a call out of the blue from Susie.
“I wanted to tell you I’m sorry,” she said.
I had no idea what she was talking about. It turns out, she had spent the previous few months wondering why she never got a “thank you” card or a note or anything for the card and the check she gave us. I never expected a gift from her, as her showing up was more than enough for us. Also, we were moving, I was finishing my doctorate and we must have sent off a jillion cards, so it never really dawned on me that I hadn’t sent one to her.
A day or two before she called me, she went to put on the outfit she wore to the wedding and she realized she had stuck the card in her jacket pocket instead of dropping it on the gift table. She asked for our address so she could send it out in the next day’s mail.
We had a long laugh about that one.
Any time spent with Susie was like going to confession, visiting a psychiatrist and getting a mental reboot. She kept me sane. She kept me focused. She kept me happy.
She also kept me out of Baraboo.
I was in the first six weeks of my master’s program, and things were not going well. I was working multiple part-time jobs to keep my head above water financially. I was living in a one-room hovel on the end of Bassett Street that was essentially one giant building-code violation. A chunk of the ceiling fell into my bed during a rain storm one night, and the plumbing turned my water so brown that I begged for a Brita pitcher for Christmas.
I also didn’t understand any of my coursework. Each day, I entered a certain professor’s class, swearing up and down that I was going to comprehend him and his theories on the media. Each day, he lost me in the first three minutes and I spent the next hour or so doing the crossword in the student newspaper.
Out of frustration, I applied for a job at the Baraboo News Republic, a daily paper for the hometown of the Circus World Museum (among other things). The editors met with me on a Saturday and the offered me a full-time gig with benefits and a salary that would get me off the “Ramen and such diet.” All I had to do was drop this pointless degree and go to work.
That Monday, I went to tell Susie that I needed to drop my classes and see what I could do about getting some of my tuition money back. Instead, we started talking about why I was going to Baraboo and why I even got into the grad program in the first place.
“I did this so I could teach,” I told her in frustration. “I wanted to see what it would be like to run a classroom and I know I can’t do that without a master’s.”
She paused for a moment and then said, “What if I could give you your own 205 class to teach next semester? Would you stay with the program?”
J-205 was news writing and reporting class of about 15 students, taught in one of the school’s computer labs. Teaching gigs like that were impossibly difficult to get. They went to doctoral students for the most part. Even more, most TA jobs were essentially indentured servitude for professors who taught giant pit classes. A boatload of grading coupled with no actual teaching was basically the gig. Handing a J-205 class to a first-years master’s student wouldn’t just ruffle feathers; it would be like putting an ostrich in a blender.
“I would do anything for that kind of chance,” I told her. “Can you really do that?”
She told me she would make it happen somehow. I believed her. Later that day, I called Baraboo and turned down the job.
It is a rare moment when a person can say with absolute certainty that someone completely changed his or her life without even a hint of hyperbole. That’s what Susie did for me at that point.
Without her, I’m not a college instructor at the age of 22.
Without that experience, I don’t get the job at Mizzou or the doctorate the followed.
Without those two things, I don’t get a tenure-track job at Ball State and my first newsroom advising gig.
I sure as hell don’t end up a tenured professor, a textbook author or an award-winning anything.
Instead, I get to be the most popular cops reporter in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
I have a really hard time trying to quantify how monumental Susie was in giving me the life I have today. I also can’t even begin to imagine how many thousands of other people have a “Susie saved my life” story just like that.
Maybe that’s the thing that made her so special: Even though I was one of 100 things she had to deal with on any given day, she had this knack of making me feel like I was the most important one. I never felt like a bother or that I was just filling time for her until something more important came along.
My life and where it went mattered to her. I hope she always knew how much her life mattered to me.
So, goodnight, Susie. The world is a lesser place without you.
But everything you gave us will continue to help us better it.