Susan Riggs: Realizing it’s a Small World After All

Susan Riggs loves small world stories, and her life overflows with them. One of her best guy high school friends from Texas was among the first to welcome her and her late husband, Charles, to Fayetteville 40 years ago. The friends still have lunch together regularly.

She grew up in College Station, two blocks from the Texas A&M University campus, where her father was head of the agricultural economics department. With her dad’s position on campus, Susan’s mother regularly hosted parties in their home for international students, professors’ wives and others — and was a magnificent cook and hostess.

“Probably the best thing I learned from my mother is, I can throw a pretty decent party together in an hour,” Susan said.   

Her dad was a Texas A&M alumnus, while her mother had graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. Riggs says that the Longhorns-Aggies rivalry is vivid in her Thanksgiving holiday weekend memories. Each summer, Susan and her parents spent three weeks in Colorado, where her dad taught a course at Colorado State University. From that vantage point, they explored much of the west, into California.

Susan was an only child, and her cousins on both sides were much older or didn’t live nearby. She was close, though, with her father’s two older sisters who lived about two hours away in Hallettsville, a town founded by Czech and German immigrants, where the siblings had grown up.

Theater was a big part of Susan’s high school years. She was in all the plays and also did poetry reading and interpretive reading for competitions. She had the lead roles in “I Remember Mama” her junior year and “The Little Foxes” her senior year. She remembers how the long, shiny red dress her mother made helped her manifest the character of Regina in the latter production.

Graduating in a class of 89 students, Susan has remained connected with friends she made in their 12 years of school together. “There’s nothing like knowing someone who can relate to your stories from way back when.”

She recalls when her mother’s father died young, and her mother’s widowed mom reconnected with her childhood sweetheart. The grandmother lived with Susan’s family when the man came to court her, and Susan still has the “fabulous” letters they wrote to each other.

Building A Family of Her Own

When Susan went to University of Texas at Austin, she stayed in the same freshmen dorm where her mom lived. Her first night on campus, she was invited to go out with a group including freshmen football players. That night, she met Charles, a football player whose date was another girl in her dorm. A girl friend of Charles’ later set him up with Susan.

On their first date, they walked from the university campus to downtown Austin, passing through the Texas State Capitol. They dated off and on, and she still dated her hometown boyfriend during the summer break. She and Charles got back together their sophomore year and became exclusive.

“He made me laugh. He was so funny in unexpected ways. And he was so honest and so good, and just really wanted the right thing,” Susan said.

They married on June 8, 1968, just after she graduated. She taught school in Austin, while Charles spent a fifth year finishing his degree. Then they moved to his hometown, Orange, Texas, where he coached football and she taught.

After a couple of years, Charles decided to become a physical therapist. He took classes in nearby Beaumont and then got into graduate school at Texas A&M, where he fell in love with exercise physiology. He pursued it and continued on there to get his PhD. During that time, Susan taught English at her former junior high in College Station, which still had many of the same teachers and principal. She also finished her master’s degree in English and Education and gave birth to their daughter, Stephanie.

They moved to Santa Barbara, California, where Charles had a post-doc fellowship at the Institute of Environmental Stress. They soon moved again when he got an assistant professor position at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. They welcomed their son, Brendon, and Susan worked on a doctorate in literacy. After six years, it was time for a change, and Charles took an offer from the University of Arkansas.

Starting Their Arkansas Chapter

The family arrived in 1984, and within two years, Susan was hired by the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the U of A to teach study skills to college students. She then stepped into a role teaching senior literacy courses for students training to be teachers. “It was always a temporary job. I was there 24 years with that temporary job.”

She was involved in developing the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program — and in keeping with the small world stories sprinkled throughout Susan’s life, one of her colleagues from those days recently moved in to BTV. Susan also taught seniors how to teach reading and social studies in elementary schools. They met three hours twice a week — with one session on campus and the second session at Holcomb Elementary.

Before and after she retired, Susan found other ways to do the thing she was good at: teaching. She and Charles taught Bible study courses at their church, Sequoyah United Methodist Church, and they led a study on John Wesley. She also taught a Disciple Bible Study, a yearlong course that took participants through much of the Bible. She later trained others to teach the course and served on a national leadership team.

Susan also has taught introduction to genealogy classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. As a child, she was always interested in people’s stories and was curious about her own family connections.

When she and Charles visited their son in Austin for football games, she also did research at the Texas State Library. For Christmas 1997, Charles bought her genealogy software so she could use the internet as a tool.

At some point, Susan’s mother had given her the family names of Adams and Hawkins. When she and Charles went to Rochester, Minnesota, for six months for him to do a research sabbatical, she spent most of her time at the Mormon Church’s family history center. Susan had found that the Adams and Hawkins families lived in Lowndes County, Alabama. She met a woman there who also had relatives in Lowndes County. Another small world story. That woman became Susan’s mentor, and they collaborated on research.

When Life Turns Upside Down

When they decided to retire, Susan told Charles they should look into joining the Butterfield waitlist, but he didn’t want to. But he sometimes passed out at night, and she had to call 911 for help. She insisted, and he finally agreed. They didn’t plan to move in, though, until they were older.

Then, in June 2017, he’d had a bad headache for a week. At a doctor visit, a CT scan showed a brain bleed. He needed to go by ambulance to a neurosurgeon in Springfield, Missouri, and she would need to meet him there. She doesn’t drive at night and didn’t know the town. She briefly explained her predicament in a group email reply, and her friend LaVonne — now her neighbor — called immediately to say she was coming to get Susan.

They drove to Springfield, and Charles had three brain surgeries in 24 hours. They put him in a coma and couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t coming out after three weeks. Their daughter finally looked up the medication they’d used. It metabolizes like long-chain fatty acids, and he had a genetic disorder that didn’t allow it to work. They started reversing the process, and Charles was lucid by Father’s Day.

After three weeks in Springfield, Charles returned to Northwest Arkansas. He was in a rehab facility and didn’t return to their home until 18 weeks after his surgery. Susan soon knew they needed to get to BTV earlier than planned. They moved into their BTV apartment in December 2018. Things were fine for the first year, then he got pneumonia again and went to Health Care to recuperate. He had high praise for the physical therapy staff there — his teaching specialty.

He returned to Health Care during the pandemic, and eventually, his health declined. He didn’t have any white blood cells, so his body couldn’t fight viruses and infections. His doctors said he needed to go to Willard Walker Hospice Home. Susan said it was a peaceful place, and their children and two grandchildren could be with him. He died on Valentine’s Day 2021.

Surrounded by Friends

Susan’s support group of BTV friends made all the difference during Charles’ illness. She’s also continued to make connections with former colleagues who’ve made it their home. She’s in a group of four who regularly have lunch. She’s on the BTV Food Services Committee, bringing forth suggestions for the dining facilities, and is a BTV Ambassador.

She’s started reading more again, and her friend Marie often gives her book recommendations. She enjoys exercise that involves music, such as line dancing, which she does in classes at the Lodge. She’s also been in some plays at BTV; in the last one, she played “the hussy” who’d been married 10 times — a part written for her.

She’s a “newspaper fanatic” and reads the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette every day. She also reads daily devotionals and does word puzzles: Cryptogram, Sudoku, Wordle and Connections.

While anxiety can be a weakness for her, a strength throughout her life has been a sense of humor. Friends say they know she’s in a nearby room because they recognize her laugh.

“I can find the humor in almost anything — to other people’s detriment sometimes,” she said. “People are just funny, and as we get older, we’re even funnier, whether we realize it or not.”

Words by Michelle Parks  |  Photos by Stephen Ironside