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Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Susan Newstead

I met with Susan at her lovely home in Rancho Navarro and we sat down overlooking the meadows outside with a cup of herbal tea and began to chat...

Susan was born in Boonville, Missouri — strange but true! Her parents were Hurst John and Martha Bates. The Bates side of the family was a mix of English/Irish/French/German and they had settled in Churdan, Iowa sometime in the mid-1800’s. Her grandfather was the comptroller for Kemper Military School in Boonville and her mother, the younger of two sisters, attended Stephens College for two years and then finished at University of Minnesota where she obtained a degree in Architecture.

The John’s were Welsh/Dutch who settled in Tennessee but left there for Missouri during the Civil War. Susan’s great Grandfather was a prisoner-of-war and vowed that he was ever free again he would start a church. He was and he did, opening the Broadway Baptist Church in Maries County, Missouri where the family cemetery was set-up. Susan’s father was born in 1911, the youngest of six, with four brothers and a sister. He went to college for a time but left and worked in an architect’s office and earned his qualifications through hands-on experience. It was there, at the office in Columbia, Missouri that he met Martha and they were married.

Susan was born first with a brother coming along a year later. He would suffer from severe cerebral palsy all of his life before dying in 2001 at 53. She also has a sister and another brother. “We grew up in Columbia, a sizeable town of about 36,000-plus back then and the home of the University of Missouri. Both sides of my family had religious backgrounds and we went to a Baptist church most of the time I was growing up. My mother kept on with that church the rest of her life while my father was more of an ‘explorer’ in religious and spiritual terms, searching for something that would embody his views. He read an article in Life magazine once about Albert Schweitzer, the German theologian, philosopher and medical missionary, and was so taken by the man’s thoughts that he went to visit him — and ended up designing Schweitzer’s kitchen! He found that he and Schweitzer could communicate without a common language. My father was a very unusual person — people found him to be either wonderful and amazing or crazy. As a father he was somewhat difficult.”

The family lived in an area of Columbia that her father was somewhat instrumental in building. When Susan was born they lived in a house that her mother had helped design, then when the family got too large they moved across town to an ex-tavern for a year and then back to the original neighborhood — into a 1872 house right behind their first home. Her father re-modeled it, despite the fact that he said ‘architects should never solely design their own houses — they should get another opinion too.’ “He was very serious about his architecture projects, interviewing clients for hours to really know family dynamics and what they might want.”

Susan attended the local public school where she was not a particularly social child. “I was close to my siblings and also played with the two girls who lived next door who were close in age to me and my sister. I did like the outdoors and loved climbing in the trees in our yard especially one particular bald cypress tree that was great for climbing and a catalpa that was shaped just right for playing imaginary games. I was fairly shy in my early teens but I enjoyed school pretty much.”

Towards the end of her 8th grade year, because of her father’s position on the board of Kemper Military School, he was asked to find a new headmaster for their school. “As part of his search he visited a Kent School in Connecticut and decided that would be a good school for me to attend for my high school years. I took and passed the tests, had an interview, and was accepted. It was an all-girls boarding school up a mountain although there was also the boys’ section — about 4 miles away, down at the bottom. It was an Episcopal prep school and I enjoyed it. I was not terribly homesick although I was close to my mother and there was some sadness when I left. There was tension at home between my parents and I believe my father wanted to get me away from my mother’s influence and to get a new perspective.”

Susan’s favorite activity at school was theatre, which she really enjoyed, not acting but getting involved with various activities backstage. ‘I also liked the way some of the teachers at that school really made you think about things in different ways. I was not involved in any sports but somehow I became the cheerleader — yes, the cheerleader — there had never been any girls doing that before at the boys’ school football games, boys only, and I had to dress like the boys. Cheerleading was not considered ‘proper’ behavior for young ladies. I got to do it because I had a loud voice.”

Susan graduated in 1965 and had always expected she would go to college. “My mother had graduated from college and I was looking forward to it. However, my Dad wanted me to return home to look after my younger siblings, as he did not think my mother was doing a good job. He said I could go to one of the local colleges, Stephen’s College, and live at home.”

Susan attended Stephen’s College for two years and got an associate Arts degree, focusing on interior design, then theater, and film. At that point she felt she really needed to get away from home and her father, through his various contacts, arranged for her to work at the bookstore in Boulder, next to the campus of the University of Colorado. “He was a powerful presence in my life and it then took me many years to come out from under his shadow after he died. He was very unusual. He had a list of ten questions that he would put to anyone he found himself talking with — wherever that might be. On of them was ‘Do you do what you want to do every minute of every day?’ He himself would answer ‘Yes — you make the decision to do that.’ Another was ‘Do women rule the world?’ He would say ‘Yes — lock, stock, and barrel. Women rule by assignment.’ He would hand it to the person he was talking with to fill out and then get into a discussion about it. My mother took him to see a psychiatrist once and he was very proud to prove that he was sound of mind, although he remained mad at her for the rest of his life about that.”

“In the 60s, the hippy years when people were searching for something spiritual to follow, there were groups of people who thought he was ‘Christ-like’ because of the things he would talk about with authority. Sometimes I felt like he had ruined my life. Yet I was the one in the family he would talk to about all of his ideas and he wanted me to be a certain way, which didn’t feel like my way. Conversely, after he died, I also felt he was one person who knew what I was trying to do with my life. I have had a spiritual bent since my early teen years and took college courses comparing different religions. I could have stayed at Stephen’s College but in 1967 I accepted the chance to move away. I had some interest in politics growing up and by the late 60s was very interested but I never really got actually involved with any of the movements of the time.”

In early 1968 Susan decided that she would like to go to University of Denver to study radio, television, and film. She enrolled in summer school thinking that she was accepted but found out that she would have to wait until sometime in the fall session to know if she was accepted in the Radio TV Film Department and there was no guarantee. “I was annoyed and decided to join some friends of mine who were living in Central City up in the mountains at a short-lived hippy commune. That was fun for a time and whilst I was there a fellow by the name of John Newstead arrived to hang out for a while before continuing on to southern California. He had been mining near to Steamboat Springs but while he was there the U.S. Coast Guard called him up for active duty. We got married that December, a very small ceremony for close friends — and my Dad came too! He was very happy; he had always wanted me to get married. After that we moved out to Norfolk, Virginia and John was supposed to move on from there and catch a boat to the war in Vietnam.”

However, John’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and he and Susan had visited her at Christmas. “John’s family had decided that nobody was allowed to talk to her about dying. They were trying to protect her, but to me that was awful. I would never want anyone to do that to me and may be part of the reason I now work with Hospice. Anyway, one of John’s superior officers became aware of this situation and took him off the list for Vietnam and he assumed local Coast Guard duties. A short time later we found out I was pregnant and that seemed to lift John’s mother and she lived longer than expected, hoping to see that grandchild but unfortunately she passed in the June of 1969, before our son was born in September — Jason John Newstead, which he changed to John ‘Johnny’ Edward Newstead III in 2nd grade, and much later he became Bones when he took a semester off of college for a three month Outward Bound trip.”

John was in the Coast Guard for a year or so and then the family decided to head for California. However, they stopped in Missouri on the way, where Susan’s father had some farmland in Boone County. “For one reason or another we stayed on the land where there was a cabin for us to live in. John found various farm-work jobs in the area and I was a homemaker, although I did work for my father as an architectural drafter in Columbia on occasion for a few years and my mother would baby-sit Jason. We got forty acres of the property from my folks and built a house in 1973, the same year our daughter Miel was born. We’d visit John’s father and family in Riverside, California quite often, including family gatherings in the summer when they would rent a beach house in Newport Beach. John started working on the river as a deckhand on towboats that pushed long strings of barges up and down various rivers in the Midwest — the Mississippi, the Ohio, and Illinois. He worked his way up to captain so he was usually gone for a month and then home for a month — a situation that lasted for 20 years.”

John’s job was well-paying and therefore Susan felt she could spend more time at home raising the two children so she quit working for her father and took classes at Stephen’s College in her efforts to learn more about “what made a home a healthy environment to live in. I didn’t get very far! However, I was working with group of folks on city planning and was introduced to some people who were putting together a series on the local community radio station on ‘Columbia in the Year 2000’. I was invited to help create a series of produced pieces which led into broadcast discussions and I fell in love with doing volunteer production work for them.”

Meanwhile Susan’s spiritual exploration continued and she discovered Findhorn in the north of Scotland — a community working with nature, not so much a commune as a spiritual community. Findhorn has no formal doctrine or creed and offers a range of workshops, programs and events in the environment of a working eco-village. The programs are intended to give participants practical experience of how to apply spiritual values in daily life. Susan visited Findhorn for a month following her father death in February 1979. “He had Legionnaires disease and wouldn’t go to a doctor until he was actually dying because he did not respect medical science. He thought he knew better. Just like with his ten questions — he would listen to the answers and then say, ‘Well that’s all very well but the correct answers are…’ He was very charismatic and won many people over.”

Susan made good friends with people at Findhorn and kept in touch with them but she returned and went on with her life in Missouri, deciding to get more involved with the radio station and soon, as well as production work, she had her own music show, called ‘Joy.’ “I played any sort of music that I thought fitted that description. I became KOPN’s production manager and we were one of two public radio stations in town — the other one featured National Public Radio (NPR) programming; we were the ‘imagination station’.”

By 1986, Susan was the radio station’s General Manager. “John was still on the boats and our son Bones had graduated high school and was attending UC Santa Barbara studying electrical engineering, telling us he would not be coming back to live in Missouri. By the time Miel was looking at UC Santa Cruz in1990, we knew she would probably have similar thoughts. As a result we began to have serious thoughts about moving out this way to live. The main criteria in our search were for a place where I could have a job in public radio and if possible somewhere in northern California.”

“Around 1990, I came out to San Francisco for a convention of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and as part of the trip I came up to Anderson Valley to help this new radio station, run by Sean Donovan, on a fundraiser workshop. It seemed like a lovely place to live, and we had grown to love living in the rural area outside of Columbia, so when Sean told me he would be leaving and that the General Manager’s position would be opening up I decided to apply. In January 1991 I came out for an interview and got the job. John and I drove out here and were fortunate that Jan Wax said I could live in her daughter’s yurt on her property on Holmes Ranch. I took over from temporary manager Johnnie Bazzano, starting at KZYX&Z on March 1st.”

After a few months of looking, Susan and John bought a house at the edge of town in Boonville and John continued to work his ‘month on, month off’ schedule. Susan was General Manager at KZYX&Z here in the Valley for two years and “that was enough, although I continued to do a show after that on which I played swing music. In 1993, I found a part-time job with ‘New Dimensions’, a spirituality-based weekly radio show out of Ukiah that was broadcast on stations all over the country and even in Australia and elsewhere. Michael Toms was their main interviewer and I was the distribution person and worked from home in Boonville. I also worked for ‘New Dimensions’ on a series of programs about healing. I did another tape for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, co-founded in 1973 by former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, about their 20 years of research into spontaneous healing.”

“I had done a series of short produced pieces on traditional artists of Missouri when I was the General Manager back there at KOPN and so I started working with a group of people from Hoopa in Humboldt County on a documentary radio series about the Native Indians of California. I worked on that for six years with Joe Orozsco, Peggy Berryhill, and Rhoby Cook, doing interviews and production and in the end I had done five of the thirteen half hours that were distributed to public radio stations around the US in 2000 by NPR.”

Susan joined the AV Ambulance volunteers and was at the same time involved with her energy healing studies — “I was told by my healing teacher that ‘we were not emergency care workers’ so there was certainly some irony there. I had not been on the ambulance crew that long when the manager quit and I was asked to take that position and then John, who was also on the ambulance and fire department here in the Valley, finally quit the towboat job and started a small trucking company with Roy Laird and George Castagnola.”

Back in 1984, after it was decided that her mother could no longer handle him, Susan helped her mother find a place for her brother to live in Sacramento. “I visited him there often after I moved out here and brought him home with me for visits. I had suffered a small heart attack in February 2000 as a result of taking too much migraine medication — something I’ve dealt with all my life. Around that time we moved to a house on Estate Court by the airport in Boonville and when my brother got really sick in 2001 he came to stay with us there until he moved to a place in Willits which he enjoyed for a time before getting sepsis and dying in 2001. I had resigned as manager of the ambulance by then and was doing a little energy healing for a few people. I wish I could have done more for him and helped in his healing.”

John bought out his partners and later sold his trucking company to AV Brewery owner Ken Allen. In 2000, Susan started to work part-time for Bones as technical support for his software company and when she left the ambulance management she stayed on as an EMT for a time. In the late 90s, Susan became interested in the Bôn Religion of Tibet, with its emphasis on respect for nature and the healing of physical and environmental as well as spiritual afflictions. In 2002 she visited the monastery in northern India that is the religion’s base which has a school for higher learning for monks and one for nuns and which also cares for and educates over 500 Bon children whose parents have died or are very poor. She wanted to make a pilgrimage to various sacred Bôn sites and learn about where they are. She returned in 2003 and then in 2005 went to Tibet for that pilgrimage for two months. “I visited several really wonderful places and made a 165-mile trek with Tibetans around a lake on foot for eleven days with donkeys carrying our belongings, all above a 15,000 feet elevation — certainly one of the highlights of my life. Afterward I put together a database for The Bon Foundation here in the US and then joined the Board, eventually becoming their Administrator.”

Susan and John split up in 2006 after 38 years together. Susan moved to a house she designed on Bones and Holly’s property in Rancho Navarro. Bones and Holly live just up the hill with their boys Kai and Max. Bones is CFO and developer for a successful software company and his wife Holly is a sign language interpreter, and when they are not doing that they are often involved with their Mendocino Center for Circus Arts. Susan’s daughter Miel lives in Philo and works for Bones too — “she is my direct boss!”

These days, Susan continues to work for her son and tries to visit India every year as part of her administration work for the Bôn Foundation. She has been doing hospice work in the Valley and Ukiah since 1993, both with Hospice of Ukiah and Phoenix Hospice, and is a member of the AV Lions Club.

I asked her for a verbal image of her father. “Very charismatic. He had a lot of ideas that he wasn’t sure people were ready to accept. He was not an easy father to have.” And her mother? “She was a caring person and even though she had Alzheimer’s when she died, a part of such sufferers continues and her caring side went on to the end.”

I asked Susan what she liked most about the Valley. “Living in the redwoods; the wide range of people.”

The wineries? “Well, they have had quite an effect. I don’t drink wine but many people do and they have given a lot of people work.”

The AVA? “After many negative comments about the radio station I avoided it for many years. Maybe this will make me come back to reading it again.”

KZYX radio? “I like it although I don’t listen that much. There are some really good programs but I don’t miss the job I had there.”

Changes in the Valley? “There are many more wineries and that was probably inevitable. There is less logging which is probably good as more sustainable practices were needed.”

Marijuana? It has become an income source for many but if other people are affected this is not good.”

I posed a few questions to Susan.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Working with hospice and doing spiritual care.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? — “People who treat others badly in any manner whatsoever.”

Sound or noise you love? “Music that lifts the spirits — it can be anything — rock, dance music from around the world, new age music.”

Sound or noise you hate? “The traffic in Boonville was bad. Here it is quiet. The heater coming on irritates me!”

Favorite food or meal? “Brown rice; veggies from my garden.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Rachel Naomi Remen — one of the earliest pioneers in the mind/body holistic health movement and the first to recognize the role of the spirit in health and the recovery from illness. She is Co-Founder and Medical Director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program and has cared for people with cancer and their families for many years.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “My three Tibetan Thangka’s — art works; a collage I did of my brother; and a painting by Rachel Lahn, a local artist.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “The book would be ‘Apprenticed to Spirit’ by the spiritual teacher David Spangler; a song is Chris Williamson’s ‘Waterfall’; and a film, maybe ‘Gandhi,’ I guess.”

Favorite hobby? “Gardening.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “A medical doctor.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “A janitorial worker.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was 15 and we went to a dance.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “That is difficult. [Long pause…] No. There are lots of things that I wish I had done better but maybe I couldn’t have done. It’s best to let it be.”

A memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “The walk around the lake in Tibet.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “My kids. I have been very lucky. It’s them, not necessarily me.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “That I have tried to bring as much goodwill into the world as I can through my work for the Foundation and with hospice. That I try to make good connections with people in the spirit of goodwill.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “As I said, there are lots of things I could have done better. If he said ‘Welcome, you did a good job’ then maybe I did one or two things well.”

To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Terry Ryder.

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