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Ambassadors Who Loved Their Communities and Left Them Better Places

by on June 07, 2011 4:34 PM

My adopted hometown of Millheim is a little less cheerful, a little less charming today. The flower lady passed away earlier this week.

Her name was Susan (Colyer) Parrett – Susie to family and friends. But all you had to do was mention "the flower lady," and almost everyone in that part of Penns Valley knew to whom you were referring.

"Susan was well known for taking care of the flowers in downtown Millheim and Fountain Park," her obituary explains. "If you saw a lady with a step ladder scurrying down the street, you knew it was Susie on her way to water the hanging baskets."

Scurrying, perhaps, but always smiling.

Susie truly loved her work: helping to beautiful the gritty mill town that equal numbers of Harley-Davidsons and Amish buggies, pickup trucks and Beaver Stadium-bound RVs pass through, and where many of us, taken in by its rough-edged allure and soft-hearted residents – although some of them will deny anything resembling the latter – have chosen to live.

Susie was born there, went to church there – at St. Luke's United Methodist where, naturally, she tended the flowers – and, when townsfolk got together to talk about putting plants in the business district and in Fountain Park, she pitched in to help with the design, implementation and upkeep.

Susie was responsible for the large, round, wooden, flower-filled barrels on downtown sidewalks. She climbed her step ladder to saturate the hanging baskets every evening – or so it seemed – in the summer. And no matter how many times I or others may have told her how much we appreciated what she was doing, doing it was obviously its own reward. Her smile said that.

Millheim's flower lady – quietly and with true humility – made her town a better place and enriched the lives of her neighbors.

"She planted the flowers there in my basket just last week," my downstairs neighbor said as I left for work this morning. "She was a very nice lady – a very special lady."

And as I drove westward on state Route 45, I thought of Susie and of other special people who, quietly and unassumingly, made their communities – and the lives of folks who live therein – better.

I thought of Tom Shade Jr. who, from the time he moved to State College in 1969 until his death in 2006, waved to people who passed by his West Beaver Avenue home and gave everyone he met on a downtown street a warm, friendly smile.

Shade was widely known as the borough's unofficial greeter.

"I don't think anyone ever worked harder to put the happy in Happy Valley," Mayor Bill Welch said in tribute.

Then there was the late mayor himself.

For many, Bill Welch was State College personified. No one loved the borough more. No one represented it better. And he did both – loving State College and being its face to the world – without compromise or pretense, but with a wry smile, a twinkle in his eye and an ever-quotable quip that put things, no matter how controversial, into proper perspective.

He refused, for example, to veto the now-infamous chicken ordinance that regulated, after the great expense – waste? – of councilmanic time on the matter, the keeping of egg-laying fowl within borough limits.

"The risks and dangers claimed for small numbers of chickens in restricted coops and runs at one-family dwellings do not support a veto, and I won't cast one," Bill said at the time. "Nor will I sign the ordinances, a middle way open to the mayor who perhaps wishes to signal grumpiness about, but not opposition to, the law."

Ever thorough — the former journalist in him, perhaps — Bill even toured two henhouses before reaching his decision.

"The four chickens we saw appeared happy, healthy, clucking quietly, and bearing up in the cold much better than I was," he said.

Bill did veto, however, what many thought to be Borough Council's misguided resolution calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq – angering some on the political left in the process. But, he asked, what does making a symbolic statement about the war have to do with running the Borough of State College? Foreign policy, he concluded wisely, was none of council's business – or at least was not in the purview of local government.

Then a short time later, Bill created a major stir among some on the political right by agreeing to preside over a non-legally binding, same-gender commitment ceremony.

Accused of trying to make a political statement, Bill asked, "What's political about commitment?"

Bill possessed common sense and uncommon courage – moral and political. State College never had a better ambassador.

Bill Welch, Tom Shade Jr. and Susie Parrett – three people from very different backgrounds but sharing a love for where they lived and the ability, by simply being themselves and doing the work to which they felt called, to make their community better.

We are poorer for their passing, but so much richer for passing through the places they lived and loved.

Rich Kerstetter is managing editor of Follow him on Twitter at or get news updates via Facebook at Rich can be reached at [email protected] or at (814) 238-6201 Ext. 135.
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