The Valley Room at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center brimmed last Thursday during a celebration for Suzanne Sadowksy, the center’s sustainability director who retired last week after 20 years at the post. People filled pockets of space and doorways were blocked with bodies that peered into the bustling room to hear speakers commend Ms. Sadowksy for her leadership in the valley.
Liza Crosse, aide to Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, praised Ms. Sadowksy’s work with a long list of organizations: West Marin Senior Services and the Coastal Health Alliance, the community center’s senior lunch program and West Marin Coalition for Healthy Kids, and Gan HaLev, the valley’s Jewish congregation.
Ms. Crosse described her as a model who “taught me how to lead when in a secondary role.”
An aide for Congressman Jared Huffman presented her with a certificate of honor that recognized her dual careers: 34 years with the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics and two decades with the community center in a career that “honored the rich cultural diversity in the valley.” Walking to the front of the room to receive it, Ms. Sadowksy blushed. “I follow the congressman on Facebook,” she said.
At age 81, Ms. Sadowsky moves with the grace of wisdom wedded to tenacity.
A New Yorker by birth, she was first exposed to public service when her older brother became a city councilman in Queens. (Ms. Sadowsky recalled a photo of him standing side by side with Eleanor Roosevelt, her lifelong hero.) Her mother was a bookkeeper, and Ms. Sadowksy reckons she may have inherited her mother’s knack for math. She attended Alfred University to study the subject, while flirting with theater on the side. After graduating in 1956, she began working for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in a career that would take her from New York to Los Angeles and eventually to Woodacre.
Ms. Sadowsky said she made a crack in the glass ceiling, and mentored five other women while working for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. She encouraged these women, who were holding secretarial or administrative support jobs, to pursue college degrees to qualify for economist positions. Decades later, she continues to notice sexism in the workplace.
“I still think government and business organizations are run on this pyramid model,” she said. “Women are making headway, but girls still think there are some things they can’t do as well as boys.”
Ms. Sadowsky recalled detailing new data pertaining to workplace safety to a large crowd of mostly male engineers in Orange County.
“Here I was, this Jewish woman from Brooklyn, talking to 100 safety engineers about a brand-new data collection. I was scared but I told myself: you know more than they do and you need to get up and talk about it,” she said.
She settled in Woodacre in 1975 to work at the bureau’s San Francisco office, where she was responsible for overseeing joint federal and state statistical programs across eight states. Her daughter, Heather, was an infant around the time of her move to the valley, and Ms. Sadowksy started to feel the burden of juggling her family and career.
When she was asked to head the bureau’s Federal Women’s Program, which helps agencies ensure that women have equal employment opportunities, she began negotiating for a child care center in downtown San Francisco. The center eventually opened in 1991, a year after Ms. Sadowksy retired from the bureau.
The next year, along with Davo Knepler, Michael Chadwick and Laurie Chorna, she formed Gan HaLev.
“It was something I was missing in my life,” Ms. Sadowsky said of her motivation behind organizing the Jewish congregation, whose name translates to “Garden of the Heart.”
Through her leadership, the group acquired a Torah scroll from the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust in London in 1994. Gan HaLev is part of an inter-faith union between St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church and the San Geronimo Community Presbyterian Church that meets twice a year for a group forum.
Ms. Sadowksy’s relationship with the community center began when she approached Dave Cort, who had just begun his post as director, to place a notice about the group in his newsletter. She joined the center’s board three years later and, by 1997, was working as a part-time administrative assistant. She would go on to became the center’s associate director and more recently the sustainability
“Coming from a federal job to a community organization, I began addressing social issues in a very concrete way,” she said. “It was great work, both to be engaged with the community and to use my skillset, which I learned to apply to a local nonprofit.”
Over the years, she tracked census data and noticed a smaller number of young families and children living in the valley. She has used that information to help the center address the shifting demographics.
In 2008, upon hearing that a meal program at the Woodacre Improvement Club would be discontinued because of poor attendance, Ms. Sadowsky suggested the program be held at the community center. Today, the bi-weekly senior lunch is a staple for valley residents, serving up to 80 meals a week. Multiple offshoot programs stemmed from its success, including the “Growing Old Gracefully” peer group, field trips to museums and exercise classes.
Though nearly always upbeat, Ms. Sadowsky has endured two bouts of cancer, the first in the 1980s and again in 2010. She said those experiences forced her to come to terms with her mortality.
“I think this is it: what we have is right now,” she said. “Having that illness and looking death in the face, I think our memory, or collective memory, is in the community. That’s where we have the continuum of who we are.”
Ms. Sadowsky ordered scrambled eggs and bacon at the Two Bird Café during the first Monday morning since her retirement party. But her community involvement is far from subsiding. She had already been on KWMR to speak about an upcoming event at the community center, on folk singer Phil Ochs, and had a newsletter to send off to the members of
She will also focus on her biggest passion: her two young grandchildren. “[My retirement] is not the closing of a chapter,” she said. “It’s a continuum, rather than a separation of things.”