Suzann Willhite grew up not far from the banks of Plum Creek in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, a location made famous by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Born into a farm family, she is the youngest of 17 children, 14 of whom lived past infancy.
Farming can be a hard life where bad weather and poor commodity prices often means living in poverty. Suzann remembers people sneering when her mother sometimes used food stamps to pay for groceries.
“We had enough to eat because my mother canned everything under the sun, but we didn’t always have everything we needed. Medical care was always a question of ‘how bad is it?’ because the cost was unknown,” Suzann said.
Suzann was the first in her family to graduate from college, enrolling at St. Cloud State, then studying abroad in Denmark, and finally transferring to the University of Minnesota to earn a degree in forestry and natural resources.
Suzann worked seasonally for many years in Minnesota, Alaska, and in Rocky Mountain National Park. In 1996, she got a full-time job with the Minnesota Division of Forestry within the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Suzann moved around within the DNR Divisions of Forestry, Trails and Waterways, Fish and Wildlife, before ultimately becoming a manager in Operations. She retired early at age 55, a choice made possible through frugal living, saving, and promotions she received as a white woman in a male-dominated field.
Despite the tight finances of her childhood, Suzann embraces the role of philanthropist with generous, multi-dimensional gifts to the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. It surprises her that she can do this.
“As a young person, I never imagined being able to give like this. Years ago, I read about a large charitable gift given by a woman who had been a secretary at 3M. That woman never had a big income, but she gave a big gift at the end of her life. That little seed was planted with me long ago that I could save a little and maybe give a lot someday,” Suzann said.
With guidance from her financial planner, Suzann has given four different ways to the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. She:
- Gave outright gifts to the COVID-19 Response Fund for Women & Girls addressing immediate impacts of the pandemic,
- Transferred her Donor Advised Fund from a different foundation to the Women’s Foundation,
- Established a transfer on death document to transfer her condo immediately to the foundation when she dies, and
- Listed the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota as one of several beneficiaries of her IRA and retirement assets.
“It felt good,” she says. “I did all of the paperwork before taking a trip last summer to Croatia.”
Why choose the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota as the recipient of her charitable contributions? She shared that her involvement is relatively recent and it stems from her passion in wanting equal rights for women, girls, and all people.
“As a kid on the farm, I saw that the girls were expected to work both inside and outside. I washed dishes and cleaned but also baled hay, collected eggs, and drove a tractor. The boys were not expected to do any inside work. And as we grew up, the girls were expected to get married and have babies. Many of my older siblings married very young and had children immediately. I sought a different life. I knew I was smart enough to go to college and have a career that would pay a decent salary to support the life I wanted,” she said.
“I want equal opportunities, whether that is education, jobs, housing, access to food, and health care. I want that for every person. Each person’s inherent worth and dignity should be respected. I see that the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota cares about that. I realized that here is an organization that is very focused on women and girls and very inclusive on gender issues. This gets back to my focus on all human beings needing equal opportunity. The Women’s Foundation seems very intentional about how they take action to bring about that change,” Suzann continued.
In retirement, Suzann became more deeply involved with ERA Minnesota, working to get the state legislature to place the proposed Minnesota State Equal Rights Amendment on the ballot for voters.
“I am volunteering as president, a full-time job for me now,” she said.
Suzann says Hillary Clinton’s loss in her presidential campaign “kicked me into gear. When it was announced that she lost, I was in a room full of women, and the air went out of the room. We couldn’t believe Hillary could lose so drastically. It felt like a vote against women. The misogyny was unmistakable. I said, ‘I want to see good, smart women in positions of leadership and power.’”
The seeds that were planted long ago are bearing fruit as Suzann Willhite generously lives out her convictions today. Her volunteer leadership with ERAMN and her giving with the Women’s Foundation are working together to advance equality for all people and are building a legacy for the next generation.