Asked to name her favourite of the dozens of volunteer and service positions she’s held in Nelson over the past 40 years, Susanne Raschdorf says “All of them. I have never done anything in my life that I have not enjoyed thoroughly.”
Why has she taken on important work with, among others, the Nelson and District Credit Union, BC Central Credit Union, Nelson Hospital Board, Canadian Diabetic Association, the Co-operative College of Canada board of governors, Nelson city council, Nelson CARES, the Rotary Club and the Learning in Retirement group?
“Basically I love people. I like to be with people.”
In addition, Raschdorf has a methodical and task-oriented side. She wants to know exactly how things work.
“I need to know what is going on. One of the biggest things that motivates me is: do not criticize until you find out what it is all about. That is why I got on the hospital board, to see how it really works. That is how I got involved in a lot of things, especially city council, and also the church.”
Susanne Raschdorf was part of the city council that began the refurbishing of Baker St. in the 1980s.
Raschdorf, whose extended family recently threw a big 80th birthday party for her, has been named Nelson’s 2015 Citizen of the Year. A survey of the ways she has contributed to the community could almost serve as a social history of Nelson over the past five decades.
Raschdorf, born in Germany, arrived in the Slocan Valley from England in 1958 with her first husband Michael, a teacher, and their one-year-old daughter Caroline. Not long after, Michael was diagnosed with brain cancer. The family returned to England, where a second child, Wendy, was born.
After Michael’s death when she was 27, Raschdorf decided to return to Canada and the Slocan. For many years she tended her young family while working as secretary to the president of Notre Dame University (which existed on the present site of Selkirk’s Tenth Street Campus) and then for the provincial health department.
The first of her decades-long succession of volunteer and public service positions was with the Red Cross Ladies, who knitted garments for needy children.
“It was an amicable little group,” she says, “and we knitted like crazy. We often had to undo what we knitted because we were talking all the time.”
When her daughter Wendy was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, Raschdorf developed an interest in the disease and was a founder of the Nelson branch of the Canadian Diabetic Association. She led a team that sent articles to the Canadian Diabetic Journal and she ran door-to-door canvasses, fundraising so local children could go to diabetic camp. She organized a bulk purchasing plan for diabetic supplies so everyone could afford them, and a Christmas hamper program with food suitable for diabetics.
“I felt the cure for diabetes was just around the corner. In ten years we’d have got it licked. I thought it was about supporting each other and talking about it. Any difficulties we experienced could not be discussed with the doctors because they didn’t know about the emotional upset and didn’t want to hear about that, so that’s why I felt it was good to get together and exchange feelings and ideas.”
In 1971, Raschdorf became a board member of the Nelson and District Credit Union and was involved for the next 22 years. Starting as the recording secretary and then moving on to the hiring committee, her involvement then extended to the region, which involved 13 credit unions, and provincially at the BC Central Credit Union. She became chair of the board in Nelson and helped plan a new credit union building.
“I did this because I needed to be involved in something. My son was born, I had time to spend at home and I enjoyed it thoroughly but the time came when I had to be involved in something. The credit union was under $5 million at that time in assets, and the board was involved in every action. It grew and grew and grew, and I became the regional director responsible for all the credit unions in the East and West Kootenays. I did a lot of speaking at the annual meetings. It really became my life.”
Citizen of the Year Susanne Raschdorf is very proud of her leadership and service award from the Co-operative College of Canada. Bill Metcalfe photo.
Her work at the credit union stimulated an interest in co-operatives. She became involved with the the Co-operative Credit Society and lobbied the government about credit union issues. She also served on the Co-operative College of Canada board of governors. The college develops courses and programs for the co-operative movement. She was also interested in insurance for co-operatives and served on the audit committee of Cumis Insurance Group.
“Co-operatives are people helping people,” she says. “Most of the time when I was sitting at a board table, I was always back with the people, not forward with how big the credit union could grow. It was far more a case of helping because if we gave a mortgage in those days the rates were higher than anywhere else, but if the credit union had a profit, it would be shared with the members and that really took my fancy.”
In the 1980s and ‘90s Raschdorf served on the board of Kootenay Lake Hospital, before the formation of regional health councils which preceded the Interior Health Authority.
And in 1980 she was elected to Nelson city council, the one that began the revitalization of Baker St. by exposing heritage buildings that had been hidden under various kinds of cladding in the 1950s and ‘60s to make them look modern. She’s very proud of that work and liked being on council.
“It was great. I enjoyed it, I wish I had more wisdom at that time, but it was fun because you could do things. The revitalization was a great idea and I liked being involved in that. I am very proud of it. It looks so beautiful.”
Asked which of her activities gives her the greatest feeling of accomplishment, she said it was becoming a certified financial planner in 1992, after which she worked for Investors Group.
“That was the crowning point of all the involvement and experience I had.”
And, true to form, she saw it as another way to help people. “Still helping people, but individuals this time.”
Raschdorf married Klaus Raschdorf in 1968, and their son Andreas was born in 1970. She has 13 grandchildren.
“I must say none of this would have been possible without the full support of my husband. I was away a lot. I remember when he worked at the CPR, they would say, ‘Why do you let your wife do that? I would not allow my wife to do that.’ If I had not had the security of his support, I could not have done all of this.”
Over the years Raschdorf was also involved with the United Way, Rotary Club, Osprey Foundation, and Catholic Church. And she says that’s not even a complete list.
Nelson resident Sheila Hart was one of a trio of people who nominated Raschdorf for citizen of the year.
“She is a very caring individual and she feels a great sense of responsibility for the community,” Hart told the Star. “She has a lot of perseverance, and she is very bright and can see things in a very reasonable manner and look at both sides. She is always professional and knowledgeable. She is a very dignified lady and approaches everything in a very dignified manner. That makes people feel a sense of confidence. She is respected for that.”
Raschdorf’s current activity is with Learning in Retirement, which has shown remarkable growth in Nelson since its inception in 2009 as a small group that met in the Vienna Cafe.
Raschdorf was one of the founders. She says she’s trying to promote a positive approach among seniors.
“We as seniors don’t need to be just doing chores in the community all the time, but doing something for ourselves. I try to make people understand they have one life to live and if you only look down all the time and see nothing but sadness — which is there, I am not ignoring it — you are not getting anywhere. Look up. Look high up and see the beauty of this world. Each one of us is a miracle. Why don’t we celebrate that? Why don’t we say, ‘Hey, we are so fortunate, let’s use it.’”
The Citizen of the Year award is a collaboration between the Knights of Columbus and Nelson Star. The award will be presented to Raschdorf on Friday, April 8 at St. Joseph’s School, with doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the banquet at 6 p.m.
Tickets are $35 before March 20 and $40 thereafter, and are available at the Nelson Star, 91 Baker St. (in the old CPR station).