Susan’s Biography

I grew up in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, PA. The summer before my senior year of high school, my family moved to Sacramento, CA.

After graduating from McClatchy High School in Sacramento, I went east to Vassar College for two years, but it distressed my parents that I had chosen an all girls school. Thinking the primary purpose of college was to meet a husband, they persuaded me to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley. The Vassar-Berkeley combination was wonderful…two years to find myself and two years to find the rest of the world. I did a Coro Foundation Fellowship in Public Affairs in San Francisco after graduating and then returned to Berkeley for a master’s in city planning. My classmates used to tease that when we got a major paper assignment, they went to the library and I called people for lunch. Decades later, I still find calling experts for lunch a great way to learn.

As I was finishing my graduate degree, I was offered my dream job working for the new Director of City Planning for San Francisco. Then my friend Terry Borton sent me a telegram saying, “People not buildings matter most. Come to work for the Philadelphia Board of Education’s model cities program.” So I did.

My father died while I was in graduate school and my mother moved back from Sacramento to Pittsburgh. That first year back east, I visited my mother for Mother’s Day. A high school classmate fixed me up with her next door neighbor, Mike Lieberman. I moved to Pittsburgh Labor Day weekend and we married Thanksgiving weekend – the smartest, most satisfying decision I have ever made.

I landed a job at the University of Pittsburgh in the planning office working on top floor of the Cathedral of Learning. Forty-two stories is really not so high, but I felt, literally and metaphorically, on top of the world.

Mike was completing a residency in pathology but also working on a Ph.D. in biochemistry. When his advisor, Manny Farber, moved to the Fels Research Institute in Philadelphia, we moved as well.

I worked for a year at the U. of Pennsylvania on a grant. I had never had a job where there was not enough to do. It may sound great, but, in fact, it did not feel great trying to figure out how to stay busy for my employer rather than myself. So when Mike decided to spend three months doing cancer research at the Chester Beatty outside of London and I found myself pregnant, I decided to go with him. My father-in-law, product of the depression, thought I was crazy to walk out on a $10,000/year job, but it felt like a no-brainer to us. I returned four months pregnant and took at job with the Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences at Temple. I asked my boss, Dr. Paul Kotin, why he was hiring a pregnant woman who was only there one more year. He told me the job required unpleasant decisions and the person who did it wouldn’t have a happy future there anyway so I was perfect.

Our first son, Jonathan, was born in Philadelphia. When Mike had to move to Bethesda for a two-year commitment in the Public Health Service, I landed as a speech writer and researcher for Gordon McLeod, the head of the new HMO division in Health and Human Services. During those two years in Bethesda, I finished the Ph.D. in public policy I had started while working at the U. of Pittsburgh and gave birth to Seth. And then, it was another move, this time to the Institute for Environmental Health Sciences in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Many people thought Chapel Hill idyllic. I was not one of them. We lived on a cul de sac where the big event of the day was the mailman. Mike worked all the time, and I had trouble finding a part-time job in a city with lots of educated women and few work opportunities outside the university. Finally, I found an interesting position as the participant-observer with a Robert Wood Johnson funded project called the Rural Practice Project. I was to chronicle the progress of the project over five years. My boss, Dr. Don Madison, had very firm ideas about writing, and I owe him a huge debt. He made me a much better writer. He also introduced all of us the Myers Briggs Type and Temperament Instrument which was another life-long gift. It taught me, an ENTJ, that I didn’t necessarily make better decisions than others, but because I made them faster, I needed to sit on my thinking long enough to let others click into theirs.

With two young children, a job, a distracted husband and no family support, it was, as for many women in similar circumstances, not such a serene time. We had students living with us to help out with the kids, including the admirable John Wainio, but I always felt a day late and a dollar short. My male classmates from Berkeley seem to be surging ahead, Matina Horner, in her thirties, became President of Radcliffe, and I felt I was barely creeping forward.

Although I was tired moving, I was not unhappy when Mike was offered a faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis. We moved to the wonderful community of Clayton and had eight very happy years in St. Louis. I found great part-time work running the Educational Confederation, an association of pre-collegiate independent schools. The school heads were thoughtful, kind people and the work felt interesting and useful. I also wrote my first book in that period during a research summer when we all went to Seattle with Michael.

When we decided Mike would accept an offer to become chair of pathology at Fox Chase Cancer Institute in Philadelphia, it was my third time in Philadelphia and I felt like a Groucho Marx joke. I went to work for Graham Finney, my old boss at the Philadelphia Board of Education. He had started a consulting firm to help Fortune 1000 companies develop their philanthropic strategies.

Of all my work experiences, I did least well in this one. The people were fine and the work deeply interesting. But it required a great deal of travel and focus. With two active young children, a busy husband and suddenly a mother who needed immediate help in Florida, I was not doing a good job. I resigned and stayed home for a year, which taught me quickly how poorly I did without work.

My first book, New Traditions, arrived in the mail one day just after we moved to Philadelphia. My husband was out of town. Our eldest was on a school retreat and the youngest, figuring out fifth grade in a new school. So I showed it to the nice man painting the living room. He said, as he moved up and down the wall, “Oh.”

We had four years in Philadelphia before Michael came home and asked me to visit Houston with him, where he was being considered for chair of pathology at Baylor College of Medicine. “Houston,” I said. “You are kidding. My rolodex does the east coast and the west coast but where the hell is Texas?” That was 1988. We have now lived in Houston for nearly 24 years and, to my great surprise, I have loved living there. It is a cosmopolitan, interesting, open city with lots of opportunity. We all thrived.

Along the way, I wrote more books and had more jobs. I got to know Houston doing community relations for the Houston City Controller, George Greanias. For four years, I founded and ran the Super Summers Project and gave away over half a million books to middle and high school students in four cities. Then I was fortunate to have eight years as director of Leadership Rice at Rice University. I learned so much from figuring out how to teach others what I thought I knew when I took the job. I put some of that to work for a couple years doing executive coaching and working on the Mother-In-Law’s Manual.

In 2010, I started the Y Collaborative with my partner, Nancy Rust. (At the end of 2013, I sold my interest in Y Collaborative to Nancy.) Both of our parents had been admitted to hospice care and as Nancy and I met over sushi to commiserate, it hit us that this wasn’t only about our parents. One day, it would be about us. We saw how much we didn’t know about death and dying and realized the time to learn was before you needed to know it. We spent two years educating ourselves and then started talking with others. The focus of our work  has  been to encourage healthy people to talk about end of life issues. The work is completely absorbing and the learning continuous.

I just celebrated my 70th birthday. My family threw a great dinner party in Santa Barbara and gave me the chance to make some short comments. (Mom, my son said before me, will be profound, a little long and then she’ll cry. I wasn’t so long.) I told them the natural place to focus was on all that I was grateful for…there is so much…but gratitudes are not, I think, so interesting to hear about. Instead, I shared five regrets…small things given the range of regret options, but important to me. See those regrets in the REGRETS section.

Michael retired two years ago. I was so anxious about his decision, but it has turned out to be a wonderful stage of life for us. He is so happy having time to write poetry, read and think and I’m loving the chance, after 40 some years of marriage, to have lunch together and go out on weekday nights. We now are able to spend the summer months in La Jolla. Our son Jonathan, his wife Soyan and their daughter Aviva are nearby and that’s a joy. Our willingness to babysit on weekends has certainly moved us closer to sainthood. Seth, his wife Julie and their four children are in Boston. We try to visit every quarter to track their progress. At the moment, all five grandchildren are five or younger so we have sufficient material to track.


1. I regret not taking better care of my friendships. With so many moves, we connected with lots of people. And then we disconnected. I wish I had nurtured more of those connections so that they were still alive.
2. I regret the times I thought it more important to be right than to be kind.
3. I regret not understanding, when I was in middle of school, that learning was for me, not some registrar. For example, it never occurred to me that I was studying French so that I could speak French, not fulfill the language requirement. Sad to say, I do not speak French today.
4. I regret not having developed a deep expertise. I have, as you can see, had wonderful, interesting work that has taught me so much, but at 70, I am not an expert at anything and it would be nice to be master of some corner of the universe.
5. I think my regrets are mostly minor because we have been prudent and sensible in our lives. I regret more what I have not done than what I have done. Experience has no equal, and I hope in the coming years, I can conjure up more great experiences.

Seventy is NOT the new fifty, but maybe it is the new seventy. For the first time in decades, I seem able to balance work and play, to learn for the satisfaction of it without regard to productivity and to rekindle the wonder that was part of childhood. I am taken with a Montaigne quote I read recently: “Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.”


Death, Dying and  Dessert.  Reflections on Twenty Questions About Dying.  Casa de Palabras, 2013.

Getting Old is a Full Time Job, Y Collaborative, 2011.

The Mother-In-Law Manual. Bright Sky Press, 2009.

Venus in Blue Jeans: How Mothers and Daughters Can Talk About Sex, Nathalie Bartle, Ed. D. with Susan Lieberman. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

The REAL High School Handbook: How to Survive, Thrive and Prepare for What’s Next. Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Based on GETTING READY FOR LIFE: How To Make High School Work For You, a local edition given to 60,000 Houston ISD teens in 1996.

SUPER SUMMERS, Houston edition, 1994. El Paso, 1995; Jacksonville, FL, 1997; Springfield, MO, 1998.

The KIDFUN Activity Book. With Sharla Feldscher. Harper and Row, May, l990. Expanded edition, HarperCollins, 1995. Russian Edition, 1996.

NEW TRADITIONS: Redefining Celebrations for Today’s Family
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, l991. Previously published as Let’s Celebrate, Putnams,

Four or five years ago, following up on a suggestion from my Philadelphia friend Dick Goldberg, Director of Coming of Age, Eva Archer Smith and I started the Houston chapter of The Transition Network, an organization for professional women over fifty moving from their mainstream lives to What’s Next. (In 2013 the Houston group spun off from TTN and became Women In Transition, WIT.)  We invited a few women to dinner and from that start came a lively monthly conversation group of two- to three dozen women. From our large gathering, a few special interest groups have formed. One of them, started by Suzanne Briggs Wright, is the memoir group.

This group published a collection of essays on transition. At the time, my husband was moving towards retirement and my fears about this, which thankfully turned out to be unwarranted, became the subject of my essay. My essay is below; the fourteen other essays in this book are a great read, and the book can be found on Amazon.


Taken from COPING WITH TRANSITION, Men, Motherhood, Money and Magic,
edited by Susan Briggs Wright. Published by the Houston Transition Network

In thinking about transitions, I am flooded by memories, sweet and bittersweet. Walking our youngest child to kindergarten stands as a major transition but, in my case, not one that had me brushing away tears. I nearly skipped home, joyous at having a few hours of time alone in my house.

When we packed that same child off to college, I knew we’d miss him deeply, but I wasn’t sorry to see him go. First, he was desperate to be on his way, and I was excited to have the freedom to immerse myself in work after two decades of disequilibrium that came from never getting the personal/professional juggle into perfect balance.

Significant transitions kept coming. Birthdays ending in zero. Weddings. Grandbabies. Leaving my busy job and realizing I wasn’t just pausing; I was, in fact, retiring. An ill mother. These were all “moments,” shifts from one way of being to another. But they all seemed to me to be part of an expected unfolding . . . normal chapters in the story called My Life.

But now, I am coming up on a transition that doesn’t feel like another chapter but another book. In just a few months, my husband of 41 years is retiring. My husband, Michael–the energizer bunny, the fretter who always has work on his mind, the guy who bounds out of bed before the sun, is out the door by seven, and gone for twelve hours–is planning to stop bounding and hang out in our house. “Didn’t you think one day he would retire?” a friend asked. Since he is on the cusp of 69, I suppose retirement is a reasonable possibility, but no, I didn’t expect he would retire.

When I married Michael, he was as much in love with his laboratory as with me. I couldn’t imagine either love affair ending. The early years of our marriage were shaped by his unspoken but obvious need and desire to find success as a research scientist. And although I sometimes resented the time good science required, I was complicit in his goals. But in the middle of our marriage, I vividly recall our having a fight, a big fight. We never argued much, so this argument stood out. I don’t know what started it, but I remember stewing in my study long after Michael had gone to bed, and then waking him up shouting, “The last 18 years have been great and I want 18 more, but I don’t want the same 18. I want us to grow and change.”

He must have heard me on a deep level because we did change. Michael had been the poetry editor of his high school yearbook. He loved poetry then and considered majoring in literature at Yale. However, a professor assured him he had no talent, so off he went in the direction of medicine and biochemistry. After that disruptive evening, he began writing again and had a serious affair with his muse. In writing poetry, he reclaimed his emotional life which he had, in great part, delegated to me when we married.

Over the years, Michael’s need for time alone and his ability to focus intently on his own interests sometimes irritated me, but with the wisdom of hindsight, I now realize it benefited me greatly. It encouraged me to develop my own career, my own interests. I became accustomed to being alone, even when we shared the same space. I started making decisions without consultation. In short, I have had the pleasure of a deeply satisfying marriage with a man who has made few demands on me, and who has given me the freedom to do as I choose and enough money to do it. Michael makes me laugh and never bores me, and I know he has my best interests at heart. It was my husband who urged me to quit my demanding but fulfilling university job. “I think this gig is up, Suze. It is making you angry all the time,” he observed.

Michael is excited about not working. Healthy and still energetic, he is eager for the chance to live his own life, unencumbered by the big responsibilities he currently has as chairman of pathology and head of the research institute at a major hospital. He sees my freedom and it looks good. He wants time to write poetry, to work on his Spanish, to exercise in leisure, to think and explore and go the museum on a Tuesday afternoon when it is nearly empty. He wants to find out what larger self might be living in him that has not had the opportunity to emerge.

I’m excited for him. He has earned this. He is entitled to the same freedom I have loved. Yet I’m terrified. It seems a bigger transition than sending our boys off to college or even off to wives; bigger than turning 60 or leaving my mainstream career.

Why, why does this feel like such a tectonic shift, I have been asking myself. After all, he will still be an introvert when he retires. I’m sure he will still spend time alone in his study, writing, reading, thinking. I don’t think he will expect me to make lunch. So, why does this feel so big?

First, Michael’s retirement signals to me entry into our last developmental stage. Perhaps we don’t look like what younger adults call old, nor move like old people…but we are in the process of becoming old. Heading into our seventies, we are rounding the bend for the last act, and while I was clear about the general plot for those earlier acts, I have no script outline for this one. I understand that old doesn’t mean boring, infirm, slow-witted or even slow-moving. It describes a chronological moment and that moment cannot be bent backwards by plastic surgery or yoga. I can change how I look and how I think, but I cannot change where I stand in time.

Second, we have been blessed to see our resources grow with each decade. Now, we will begin to see our resources decline with each decade. There are, I think, enough resources, but it’s such a different way of being and it scares me. This isn’t about real money but about existential money: about becoming comfortable with living from savings rather than saving from earnings.

Third, as much as I often wished for more time with Michael when he wasn’t exhausted, now, I am nervous about his expectations. Simple, reasonable questions like “What are you doing today?” When are you going to eat lunch? Do you want to go to the gym? may make me feel cornered. Since leaving the university and returning to writing and consulting, I am often alone in the house. I wander. I might sit at the kitchen table ‘til mid morning, sipping tea and reading the New York Times. I eat caloric food standing at the kitchen counter without feeling as guilty as I should. In the late afternoon, if I have been out with appointments, I can curl up in the library with a book and slip into a nap.

The idea of sharing my house…well, really our house, but on weekdays in daylight it has always felt like my house…unnerves me. Forty years of living with a partner who has been distracted by his work have made me comfortable with solitude and independence. I seem, after so many years of marriage, to be commitment-averse—that is, averse to committing to a schedule. What if I say I am going to the gym at 2 pm…and then I get lazy and sit with my book instead? My private laziness is one thing; displaying it to someone else– even if that someone else isn’t judgmental–feels bad. What if I commit to eat lunch at noon and then decide to have a muffin with coffee at a meeting and don’t feel like lunch– and Michael has waited. I know I am making my husband sound like some sort of control freak when he’s not at all. Michael will read this and wonder why his being in the house should make me feel constricted in doing any of this. This is all about me and my fears–not a me that seems particularly attractive on paper, but me nevertheless.

On the other hand, here is a huge opportunity. It is like being in our twenties, newly married and deciding where we wanted to live and how we wanted to work and what shape our lives would take. We will get to ask those questions all over again. Amazingly, the questions seem more important at the end than at the beginning when I was too naïve to understand their import and how enormous the choices were.

When we first married, I realized that even in marriage we remained separate people. We didn’t read each other’s minds, dream the same dreams, want the same choices. Now, it all feels less separate. How else could I end up writing a memoir that features my husband? After 41 years of being together, writing about Michael is writing about me. Both literally and metaphorically, he has penetrated me. His “moving home” is every bit as much about me as about him. I know him so well that sometimes I know when he is horny or hungry or unhappy before he does. His vibrations perturb my own. And I love him so much and care for him so deeply it is difficult to ignore his needs when they conflict with mine. That doesn’t mean I am always loving. Sometimes I get angry when Michael hasn’t yet asked for anything. I’m angry because I have anticipated “the ask” and the difficulty I’m going to have in deciding how to respond before he’s said a word. Understandably, he regards this as a bit nuts, but it is perfectly clear to me.

So now, in just a few months, there will be this huge transition for Michael as well as for me. It hasn’t happened yet on the ground, but it is happening in my mind just now and filling my thoughts.



Over the years, I have found myself speaking on diverse subjects to all kinds of audiences from five people to several hundred. Once, it was a national conference of home day care providers. Another time, it was Houston Chamber of Commerce executive. I’ve spoken with women groups in a dozen states, with senior citizens, church groups and health care providers, among others.

I can’t remember how all these talks happened. I do know that I have always come away glad to have met the people in the room and grateful for the chance to try to say something deeply interesting that might stick after we all left the room. Writing and speaking always help me to figure out what I really think – and whether it is worth thinking.

Here is a small sampling of these talks:

2011 KPFT Open Journal. Why Talking About Death is Good for Your Health.
2011 M.D. Anderson, Why Talk About Death and Dying While Healthy.
2005 Power Tools Conf. for Non-Profits, “Attracting and Retaining Good Board Members.
2005 Commercial Real Estate Women of Houston, four week short course on leadership.
2004 International Leadership Association, “Why Behind the What of Leadership Classes.”
2004 Association of Leadership Educators, “Why Mentoring Matters.”
2004 American Creativity Association annual meeting, “Why is Leadership So Hard?”
2004 Kellogg Brown and Root, Impact Conference, “Why is Leadership So Hard?”
2004 St. Luke’s Hospital, “Strategies in Times of Change.”
2003 Houston Galleria Chamber of Commerce, “Leadership at Work.”
1998 Texas Educ. Agency High School Counselors’ annual meeting.
1996 Rotary Governors’ Assembly for six states — SUPER SUMMERS.
1994-95 Greater Houston Women’s Foundation conference speaker on Mentoring.
1991 Eight city media book tour as national spokesperson for Land O’ Lakes.


For eight years, I had the privilege of working with undergraduates at Rice University on the development of skills related to leadership. I never believed I…or anyone else…could teach people to be leaders. Seems to me leadership happens at the intersection of passion, opportunity and capacity. We can’t foment passion in others, although we can get out of the way when it appears. We can’t create future opportunity, but we can develop some capacities that seem to facilitate leadership.

I came to believe that the most important skills I could teach were not very grand. I suspect the university administration sometimes thought our program was not sufficiently “academic.” I stated out worrying about being scholarly, but in time, I came to believe that there were lots of places for these college students to learn scholarship. What we could teach that would help them grow into leaders was something much harder to find in the university. Here is what I think are the most important things I aimed to teach:

1. Woody Allen was right when he said showing up is 80% of success. Show up, show up on time, show up prepared, engage with others and you are already ahead of the game.

2. Know how to run a meeting. Understand that the most important time in the meeting is almost always BEFORE the meeting occurs.

Make sure people know why they are meeting and what is expected. Send out an agenda in advance. Touch base with people you expect to present. Be prepared. Arrange the space to facilitate the conversation. Start and end on time. Be skillful in parking distracting comments in a “parking lot” for future discussion.

Write down expectations, promises and commitments. If it isn’t written down, it not likely to continue to exist.

3. Only make promises you intend to keep. George Martinez taught the class every year the importance of only promising things you expect to complete, being clear about the intended outcome and committing to a deadline. Don’t say yes if you don’t intend to follow through on the action to which you are agreeing. There are, of course, breakdowns all the time. When there is a breakdown that gets in the way of keeping a promise, deal with it immediately and effectively. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.

4. How do you get centered inside yourself? If we stand on one leg, it is easy to knock us off balance. If we are confident, grounded, breathing in and out, it is still possible to knock us down but much harder. I hoped I could help my students could learn not to be intimidated by others, not intimidated by finding themselves in unfamiliar circumstances or without answers. We tried to help them become as comfortable living in questions as answers.

5. People cannot read our minds. We communicate with body language, written words and spoken words. Learn to write and speaking effectively. Appreciate the power of stories. Understand that people draw conclusions, which may or may not be true, by how we look and move. Video yourself. Watch and listen. Then do it more effectively.

6. Listen. Really listen with interest and curiosity. Listen without thinking about how you will respond. Listen as if you believe the other person, no matter his or her background, has something of use to give you. If that person seems nuts, ask yourself how you would have to think or feel to speak his words.

7. Whatever you do, make sure you would be comfortable if it showed up on the front page of morning’s newspaper. Think about whether if the same principle you are applying were to be applied to you, your partner or your children in a different context, you would consider it just.

Sure, we taught leadership theory. We encouraged our students to take an accounting course. We taught teamwork. We talked about being ahead of the curve, about followership, about courage and about being grounded in fact. We started classes in entrepreneurship and creativity. We organized summer mentorships. We emphasized that you couldn’t be a leader any more than you could be an athlete. You have to be an athlete in particular sports and you have to be a leader in something of content. That means you need to know some facts as well as having general capacities. Ignorance is not a good basis for leadership in any sector.

I don’t know what happens in the program today, but I continue to believe that these seven simple things go a long way towards helping people move their visions forward and encouraging others to join them. I believed then and I still believe it is more useful to learn these seven principles than to try to emulate whoever is the leader du jour.

In coaching work, I came to believe that my greatest utility was helping clients uncover and articulate the assumptions that led them to act in certain ways. We could focus on actions but until people came to grips with what led then to act in ways that made them less effective, the actions seldom stuck.

I loved coaching with people who really wanted to do the work and grow. It was less satisfying when clients were sent by employers and did not begin our work thinking it could be of value. Sometimes, we made progress, but it was always harder.

It is really a privilege when competent, capable people trust you with their fears and hopes and want to struggle with you to grow more fully into their best selves. Sometimes that is not the self the employer wants and it is useful to understand and appreciate the divergence, even if one is not able, in the moment, to change his or her situation.

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