Susan Palmer, 64, formerly of Moscow, and Toledo, Ohio, died Monday, July 12, 2021, at her home in Walla Walla. Her life was abbreviated, not diminished, by colon cancer.
Co-workers knew her as a principled and pleasant colleague; students knew her as an inspiring, compassionate and responsive instructor; activists knew her as a relentless advocate for social justice; grandchildren knew her lovingly as “Abuela” and loved her special scrambled eggs and fruit art. Everyone who knew her could identify her by her hearty laugh, her wide range of special occasion earrings, her notorious sneeze blessing, her “Auntie Nuke’s” hot mustard, her adoration of her cats and her even deeper adoration of her husband, Kurt.
Born Oct. 13, 1956, in Vermillion (a color she loved), S.D., to Neil Meredith and Evelyn Chaudoin Palmer, she was the youngest of three daughters.
In 1967, when Susan was 11, her father accepted a faculty position at the University of Toledo, so the family moved to Toledo, Ohio. She graduated from DeVilbiss High School at 16 years old in 1973.
In 1977, Susan began working as a Budget Analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Susan was inspired by the #MeToo movement because, like so many women in similar situations, she felt she had no choice but to leave the CBO in D.C. to halt years of sexual harassment by a senior co-worker.
Susan developed a passion for sociology, just as her father had, and that passion would inspire many students to choose a people-helping path. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology at the University of Toledo. As a graduate student in the doctoral program at Rutgers University’s Sociology Department, she launched her longtime union activism as a member of the faculty union negotiating team.
Across the country, quite unexpectedly, Susan fell in love with an Idaho Geological Survey geologist, Kurt Othberg. In a whirlwind decision in 1986, she moved to join him in Moscow. Although she resigned from her PhD program with ABD status (all but dissertation), her knowledge of how to conduct research would in time benefit thousands of students.
Susan later worked at the UI Women’s Center as the Education Programming Coordinator, and she was among the cofounders of Moscow Vision 2020.
Other than serving as a sabbatical replacement at the University of Puget Sound and teaching for two years at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Susan spent 20 years of her career teaching sociology courses at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) after accepting a tenure-track position there in 1998.
For 17 years, Kurt and Susan had a “commuter marriage” so each of them could flourish in their respective careers. Their relationship sustained the grinding weekly commute, revealing the strength of their love and mutual support for each other.
Susan spent almost double shifts interacting with students in the classroom, meeting in her office with anyone who needed help and responding to every assignment and test sent her way. She was a longtime chairperson for the Social Sciences Division and regularly attended and professionally presented at the Pacific Sociological Association annual meetings.
Susan became fluent in Spanish as an adult so that she could better communicate with Spanish-speaking students. And her students? Ella no solamente les brindó alas, ella les ayudó a volar.
Susan was a champion for criminal justice reform and labor rights, and she taught courses behind bars at the Washington State Penitentiary.
In honor of her late sociologist father, Susan and her mother established the WWCC Neil M. Palmer Outstanding Research Paper Award, which recognizes the exceptional scholarship of a WWCC sociology student annually. The highlight of Susan’s career was that shortly before retirement, she was nominated and then selected as the Washington State recipient of the 2018 National Education Association Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence.
Susan is preceded in death by her parents; spouse, Kurt Othberg; sisters Cindy and Pam Palmer, leaving Susan to turn out the lights.
She is survived by Kurt’s daughters: Alina Othberg (Marco Pinheiro) of Normandy Park, Wash., Miranda Othberg (Brad Falleta) of West Seattle, and Erin Esteban Mejia (Julio Esteban Mejia) of Renton, Wash.; eight grandchildren: April, Melonie, Janelle, Kurt, Isabelle, Adrian, Logan and Rosa. She is also survived by her cherished nieces and nephews: Scott McCormick, Seth Palmer Harris, Claire Harris Palmer, Teva Hopper, Brya Palmer, Karen Esteban and their spouses, partners and offspring. “Susan’s Circle” was expansive, leaving behind numerous close friends, former colleagues and students, many of whom became lifelong friends.
A celebration of Susan’s life will be held at WWCC Aug. 7, 2021. The family suggested contributions to the Walla Walla Community College Foundation, 500 Tausick Way, Walla Walla, WA 99362 or the Equal Justice Initiative, 122 Commerce St., Montgomery, AL 36104.
Cremation services were arranged by Mountain View-Colonial DeWitt Funeral Home in Walla Walla. Condolences may be left at www.mountainview-colonialdewitt.com.