Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler

You can read the obituary in the Alexandria and Benson newspapers or online. But words are an imprecise means of describing the life force that was Susanne. Let’s take a step back and figure out who this tiny bundle of energy was, shall we?

            First off, she was the daughter of Jack, a Slovenian immigrant-miner-turned-coal-salesman who quit school in the 8th grade, and Marie, a Normal-school-educated teacher from Oak Park, Illinois who played piano at Zimmerman’s silent movie theater in Aurora, Minnesota. Such different, disparate backgrounds and yet, when Marie toured the mine where Jack worked at the time, it was love at first sight.

            Secondly, Susanne was a sister to Barbara Jean who was four years older. The petty snarking and disagreements that come from knowing your only sibling for over 80 years were never an impediment to Susanne’s love for Barb or Barb’s love for Susanne.

            Sukey was also a wife. You won’t read this in her obituary but I feel it’s important for you to know: Susanne was the survivor of domestic abuse. Now some might ask: “Mark why bring that up at your aunt’s memorial service?” Here’s the thing: You cannot understand, you cannot appreciate the toughness, the grit of that little woman unless you know the truth. And the simple truth is Susanne is a strong Christian woman who, with the help of her blessed Aunt Mary—Grandpa Jack’s younger sister—and Barbara and other friends and family, healed and moved on. She made a commitment: To not let one unhappy episode erode her faith in humanity. Which is how she was able to say “yes” to Paul Pederson when, after years of confirmed bachelorhood, the most eligible single man in tiny Benson, Minnesota fell hard for the little, dark-haired woman with the college degree over coffee in a small town café. In all ways that matter, Paul was Susanne’s first husband, the love of her life, and, as you are likely aware, the father of their two lovely daughters. One of my favorite people, Paul died far too young, leaving Susanne, as both Julie and Heidi attest, the single parent of two school-aged girls. Again, Sukey’s fiercely resilient heart led her to seek happiness and companionship, albeit of a different sort, with her second husband, Wayne Schuler. Together, Wayne and Susanne bought and renovated a home in East Duluth and a farmhouse near Two Harbors. It wasn’t easy at the end with Wayne living in an assisted living facility and Susanne tending to their rural home. But my auntie was up to the task until her own health concerns started to wear her down. It wasn’t long after Wayne passed that Susanne agreed (don’t get me wrong: it took a bit of persuading!) to move closer to her family.

            Of all the roles that Sukey filled, however, none made her as proud as that of mother. Julie and Heidi, know that, along with Susanne’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, you are the precious legacy of your mom’s love. I think she knew it was her time, and, having seen her loved ones over the holidays, and having fought heart and kidney maladies for so long, she decided “To heck with this. It’s time to see Paul, have a screwdriver, and see if I can get Paul and Harry to argue politics.” As an aside, your mom loved my old man. She never had a bad word to say about Harry, not even after he and mom divorced. He pitched in and helped Sukey solve some pretty thorny issues involving Paul’s estate. Picture the three of them, sitting around playing gin rummy, having a cocktail, your old man, the Republican from Swift County, having it out with my dad, the Liberal from Duluth. I’m hoping that they’ve all learned their lesson and aren’t smoking up there. But who knows? Anyway, it was in her role as mom, even when she had to parent alone, where Susanne truly shined.

            She was, of course, also an auntie to me and my siblings, Anne and Dave, and a dear friend to many people. There are so many stories I could tell but time is short and maybe, the best way to make you understand our relationship is by explaining how her beautiful little memoir, Back of Beyond, came to be.

            For years, Susanne talked about the manuscript she was working on; something to do with Buena Vista, the resort her parents owned. Given I’m an author I’d ask her, “Hey, when are you going to let me read your stories?” Year after year she’d put me off. Until finally, she didn’t. She’d had the manuscript typed but left it to me to upload her words into my computer and edit the work as best I could. When I handed her the edited version of her words, she didn’t complain or balk or object or argue. She cried. After we sat at her kitchen table, pouring over photos to insert in the book, she cried again. When she saw the cover my wife René created for Back of Beyond, still more tears. But she saved the biggest cry of all for when she held the completed book, all 154 pages of her life, her blood, her sweat, her family, in her hands fresh off the printing press. Being the person she is, she thanked me and René and my son Chris for all our help bringing her dream to fruition. But you wanna know the truth? Working with her on that project, it was she who gifted us with her trust and her grace and her steadfast belief in what we were trying to achieve.

            Once she had her stories in hand, she was, as in everything else, a whirlwind. She and Wayne and my mom and friends and relatives drove hither and yon, that little short Slovenian lady hiking up her skirt, grabbing a handful of books, and charging into every bookstore and gift shop in NE Minnesota. She sold out two printings, all by herself, her success resting upon an unrequited desire to tell the world what a blessed childhood she’d been granted. Her story and the story of Jack and Marie and Barbara Jean continues today. How so?

            Aunt Sukey lived long enough to see the Buena Vista Resort repurposed into a YMCA Family camp that serves inner city folks. Last summer, even though she was feeling poorly, Auntie made it to the dedication of the new camp and signed copies of her book for adoring fans. Daughter Julie and son-in-law Brad, along with Grandson Caleb and his husband, Nestor, made it happen. Despite her frailty, Susanne beamed at the attention she and her words received that day. I felt so honored to attend the dedication with my aunt, my mom, my son, my grandson, and my wife. It wouldn’t have happened, the Kobe family being remembered in such fashion, had Sukey not told her story.

            Did you know, Sukey was a television personality? It’s true. Her first job after graduating from the Villa (now St. Scholastica) was as an extension agent, which got her a gig on the locally produced, “Dottie Becker Show”, where she discussed nutrition, recipes, and other home economics topics. She also worked as a chemical dependency counselor at Project Turnabout in Granite Falls; was the manager of her church’s traveling youth choir in Benson (even going to Japan on tour!); worked hard for many charitable causes; was active in both ELCA and Episcopal churches in Benson, Duluth, Hermantown, and Knife River; and was a licensed lay preacher, giving sermons in the Episcopal church, many of which I heard as a member of the congregation. I relished her take on faith, not only because of her spirituality but because she valued brevity: Say what needs saying and get on with the service! She was a tireless supporter of the Friends of the Two Harbors Library and a lover of great books.

            When it became difficult for Wayne and Susan to make the long drives to spend holidays with Julie and Heidi and their families, Wayne and Susan spent many Thanksgivings and Christmases at my home in northern Minnesota. Again, it was my family; me, René, and our children who were gifted by the presence of Susanne at such gatherings. She was an intelligent, loving, kind, gal who didn’t put up with shenanigans or nonsense and could spot both at the drop of a pin. The hour is late. My time to talk has run its course. But before I go, let me share some final words, words written by Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler (Anna Marie in the excerpt), with you:

Years later, long after the resort was sold and her life had taken its course, Anna Marie was sitting at her kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee. Her house was silent. It was so quiet; you could hear the ticking of the grandfather clock in another room. Outside the kitchen windows stately birches bowed with the wind towards a stand of majestic pines. The woodsy setting in her own yard reminded her of the resort.

Old photographs and one of Mother’s old journals lay on the table next to her empty coffee cup. One by one Anna Marie picked up the pictures and studied them. The photographs had been removed from old albums because Anna needed to add names and dates to the back of each one. Mother’s journal had a black leather binding. The pages had yellowed over time. Leafing through the journal, she found a short lovely poem written in her mother’s hand, author, unknown. She read the words aloud:

                        Life

Each life is like a changing flower

Like petals pale or colored free

The years slip by drop

Softly hour by hour

And leave rich seeds of memory.

Anna Marie wondered, as she took up her pen to write her own words, her own story, if the act of writing down what she remembered would mean that the journey was finally completed.

Never, she thought. The journey will continue through the years, slowly, day by day. One memory will recall another, each memory precious, bittersweet, funny. Memories shared or kept private; memories of that special place, a place held close to my heart, the Back of Beyond.

(Excerpted from Back of Beyond, by Susanne Kobe Pederson Schuler)

God bless you Auntie, I love you.

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