Susan Maria Vetter

Susan Maria Vetter

Jan. 21, 1958 – May 4, 2021

Susan Vetter was a kind, generous person with an extraordinary mind and spirit who was loved by many. She lived by a remarkable personal code defined by integrity, self-discipline, profound kindness, devotion to her family and her many responsibilities.

Born in Oneonta, N.Y., to Charlotte and Willard “Bill” Vetter, Susan grew up in the bucolic village of Delhi, N.Y., in the Catskill Mountains. Possessing a formidable intellect, endlessly curious and a natural athlete, she excelled at nearly everything she did, but especially at learning, teaching and athletics. She was a standout at softball (as shortstop she was fast, ruthless and a tad scary), basketball, cross-country skiing, kayaking, racquetball and long-distance bicycling. Woe to any competitor who underestimated her on the softball field or racquetball court; she might not always win a contest, but her opponents learned quickly that she would make them earn their rare successes against her.

After graduating from high school in Delhi, Susan chose Beloit College in Wisconsin, where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She served as both valedictorian and graduation speaker. In 1981, Susan was invited to membership in Phi Beta Kappa, the exclusive honors society that recognizes exceptional academic achievement in the liberal arts and sciences. Her chosen profession was anthropology and archaeology; she left Beloit and headed west to pursue work in her field and life in the outdoors that she loved.

Her work took her to archaeological and historical sites in Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. She grew comfortable hiking remote and sometimes treacherous trails in Yellowstone National Park, around the vast Lolo National Forest in Montana, Zion, Canyonlands and Island in the Sky National Park in Utah, and a host of other sites. Her accommodations were a tent and sleeping bag and her amenities a comfortable backpack, sturdy boots, lightweight cook stove, good coffee and a headlamp, the latter essential for satisfying her voracious reading habits that often extended late into the night.

In the late 1980s, one of her former colleagues from Nebraska, Dr. Orlan Svingen, by then professor of U.S. and U.S. public history at Washington State University, recruited Susan into his new Public History program where she began work on her master’s degree. So launched Susan’s 31-year love affair with Pullman, Washington State University and the Cougars, and with WSU’s Holland Library. So also began Susan’s distinguished teaching career.

Sue embraced history with intense excitement and incomparable intellectual drive and vigor. She devoured the many assigned readings and begged for more while her graduate student colleagues hoped for less. Her passions were the American Progressive Era, populism and women’s roles in American history. Following an absorbing grant project through WSUs Public History program in which Susan researched and wrote the centennial history of Spokane’s Northwest Mining Association, she became fascinated with the mining history of Spokane and Idaho’s “Silver Valley,” Progressive-era morals and regulation and their impact on the silver and gold mining industry, then critical to the burgeoning American economy. These topics later emerged as the themes of both her master’s degree thesis and her Ph.D. dissertation. Upon graduation with her M.A. in 1993, Susan began WSU’s Ph.D. program in U.S. and public history and also started teaching as an adjunct professor of history at WSU.

Her early teaching at WSU led to her developing and teaching a steady stream of courses both in-person and online in U.S. history, public history, anthropology, environmental studies and U.S. women’s history. She taught scores of classes over the years for WSU, the University of Idaho, Portland State University, Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College. As time passed, Susan honed her teaching skills through hard work and constant self-reflection. She embraced any teaching advice she could get. She became a gifted teacher and, as online teaching grew increasingly popular among students, she did all she could to become the best online college instructor possible, teaching herself web development and the newest innovations in online education. Students found her classes to be rigorous but fair, and her students found her approachable, demanding and inspirational.

Along with her teaching, Susan simultaneously took a role as a part-time research and reference librarian at WSU’s Holland Library and in Holland’s Manuscript and Archives Collection, a position that she held for nearly 30 years until her death. She thirsted for books, research, and the excitement of careful investigation leading to meaningful intellectual discovery. Holland Library was a candy store and Susan its most excited and devoted kid.

Finally, Susan became a much-valued member of the Educational Testing Service’s national team, developing advanced placement U.S. history exam questions and researching primary source materials to substantiate the questions. She led reading groups and each summer headed scoring sessions for the completed exams. Hundreds of history teachers from across the U.S. gathered and broke into scoring teams. As a team leader, Sue was highly respected and in turn loved the meetings and intellectual fire of so many historians and teachers gathered together to work and talk history.

In her 63 short years, Susan Vetter made a powerful, lasting impression on everyone who got to know her. Whether submerged in books and research notes, expertly fielding ground balls on her intramural softball teams, bicycling the backroads of the Palouse, striding up and down the hills of Pullman and Moscow carrying backpacks full of books, hiking dusty trails in the backcountry or opening minds to the fascinating pieces of history that thrilled her, Susan was an unforgettable presence. Truly brilliant in an era where “brilliance” is often overused and hollow, always kind and compassionate, she enriched the lives of those lucky enough to know her. We will miss her infectious laugh, beautiful smile, incomparable energy, and the example of a life of purpose and uncompromising kindness that are her legacies.

Susan was preceded in death by her father, Willard “Bill” Vetter, and her beloved cats, Pinyon (the Queen), Beanus and Sophie. She is survived by her remarkable mother, Charlotte Bisbee Vetter, of Pullman; her sister, Melinda Vetter Core (David), of Manassas, Va.; nieces Rebecca and Lydia and nephews Daniel and Isaiah, of Manassas, Va.; her longtime and devoted friend, Debra Sutphen (Rebecca Gregg), of Rocklin, Calif.; and scores of colleagues and friends.

A memorial service for Susan will be held at 2:30 p.m. Friday, June 18, in the Pine Shelter at Kamiak Butte County Park east of Pullman. In lieu of flowers, if you care to honor Susan’s memory, please donate in her name to the Whitman County Historical Society (623 N. Perkins Ave., Colfax, WA 99111), the Delaware County Historical Association (46549 NY-10, Delhi, NY 13753) or the Whitman County Humane Society (1340 Old Moscow Road, Pullman, WA 99163).

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