First Lady Recalled

Many friends in Bethany and Wheeling and around the country were saddened to learn of the death of Suzi Cummins, former first lady of Bethany College.

After a 10-month battle against liver cancer, Suzi – as she was known to all – died at age 75 in Garrett Memorial Hospital in Maryland Monday, Jan. 17. She and her husband, Dr. D. Duane Cummins, who is president emeritus of Bethany College, moved to Swanton, Md., after retirement from the college.

Suzi served as first lady of Bethany College during her husband’s presidency from 1988 to 2002. A newcomer to Bethany, but no stranger to the college’s Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) roots, Suzi quickly made Bethany her home, and the Cumminses opened their home to the college community. At the start of each academic year, Suzi befriended new students and their parents, and they had a true friend for the rest of their academic career and beyond.

At Suzi’s instigation, they had the third floor of Pendleton Heights, the college president’s home, transformed into a gathering place for students. Bethany students were welcome to make themselves at home on the third floor, where cozy seating areas beckoned them for study and conversation and where games were available for relaxing breaks. Suzi made sure that snacks and beverages were stocked there for the students’ enjoyment.

The first lady enjoyed entertaining students, parents, alumni, friends of the college and faculty members and their partners and families. On some occasions, it would be a formal dinner at Pendleton Heights or in Commencement Hall of Old Main; at other times, it would be a reception, a garden party or a picnic. She organized mystery theater dinner parties just for the fun of it.

Suzi absolutely loved to decorate for Christmas. She filled every available surface in Pendleton Heights with holiday decor and developed a new theme every holiday season, often working years in advance to create schemes for the trimmings. I recall one time when Suzi took me on a tour of Pendleton Heights’ basement where stacks of boxes, all filled with Christmas decorations, were stored.

As part of the annual holiday celebration, the Cumminses hosted a formal dinner-dance in Commencement Hall for faculty members and guests. Suzi created centerpieces for the tables and favors for each of the guests. The Christmas party was a time not only for festivities and frolicking, but also an opportunity to help others. Each year, Suzi organized a project in which guests at the dinner were asked to make and fill stockings of gifts for children or adults in need. The guests always responded with great generosity, and the filled stockings covered a large Christmas tree in Commencement Hall.

Her husband observed, “When you think of Suzi, you think of love. She had a greater ability to love than any person I have ever known, and she shared that love with unrestrained generosity. Spiritual joy came to her through loving.”

A colleague pointed out that Suzi was ahead of her time, because long before texting and Twittering, she would end all of her correspondence with an abbreviation, URLVD, which was shorthand for “you are loved.” Until her final days, Suzi signed her letters, notes and e-mail messages with URLVD, and shared that thought on the outgoing message for the family’s answering machine. She lived her life by that principle, regarding everyone as a person to be loved. She loved people and adored dogs, particularly her beloved Pomeranians.

In the community, Suzi was a member of a twig for Ohio Valley Medical Center’s auxiliary and she was active in the Woman’s Club of Wheeling, presenting programs and winning prizes for needlework in clubwomen’s arts and crafts competitions. In recognition of her service, the Woman’s Club of Wheeling presented Suzi with the rare honor of life membership in the club.

Suzi also was well known in the Disciples of Christ movement, serving as a women’s retreat lecturer; her husband noted that she spoke in 21 of the church’s 35 regions. An author of five books, she was a workshop leader, book reviewer and church school educator for 48 years.

A native of Oklahoma City, Okla., Suzi earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1957 from Phillips University, where she met her future husband. He recalled that they met “as Phillips freshmen in the first hour of the first class at the opening of school” in September 1953. They were married in October 1957. She was the proud mother of a son and two daughters and doted on 14 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A memorial service will be conducted at Bethany Memorial Church at 11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 25. The family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Cummins scholarship fund established in her name while she served at Bethany College.

Linda Comins can be reached via e-mail at: