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Tragic Death of Advocate Honored with Living Memorial

4/25/2011 8:12:34 AM

Tags: Alliance for Biking and Walking, Susie Forest, Susie Stephens, Carolyn Szczepanski

susietreeAt long last, a living memorial now grows in the city of Susie Stephens’ tragic death.

Had she not been struck and killed by a bus while legally crossing the street in St. Louis during a conference in 2002, Susie would have turned 46 years old young on Saturday, April 16. To commemorate and honor her joyful and lasting legacy, a handful of bicycle and pedestrian advocates planted a Susie Tree in the shadow of the iconic Gateway Arch.

For many folks in this movement, Susie's name is legend. Even for advocates who never met her — myself included — the activist from Washington state has become a personal inspiration. Susie wasn't just a co-founder of the Alliance for Biking & Walking. She was more than a passionate bicyclist and environmentalist. She celebrated life through song and advocacy and, above all, believed that the tough work of making the world a better place is best done with a smile on your face.

After her death, Susie’s mom, Nancy MacKerrow, started the Susie Forest project, planting trees around the globe to memorialize Susie’s indominable spirit. Sinking roots into the city where Susie passed was a long-held hope for MacKerrow and her family. This month, a trio of advocacy groups — Trailnet, the Great Rivers Greenway and the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation — helped to make that hope come true.

“This will provide some closure to a terrible incident that happened in St. Louis in 2002," Brent Hugh, Executive Director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, said in a press release before the event. "Susie was killed just about the time I was getting interested in bicycle and pedestrian issues, and it had a profound impact on me and on our work at the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation."

On the blog for the Susie Forest project, MacKerrow described the weekend as bittersweet.

susie“The trip to St Louis was wonderful but hard,” MacKerrow wrote. “It was hard to show Jack and Becky [Susie’s brother and sister] the corner where Susie was killed and hard to walk where she had walked to the Gateway Arch on her last evening. Somehow the cold and windy and rainy weekend seemed appropriate. And yet the flowers and the emerging leaves on the trees also seemed appropriate.

After getting to bed at 2:45 am because of a late plane, it was a groggy threesome that trudged to the arch on Friday morning to watch Susie’s tree go into the ground. The planting crew had to listen to my Susie spiel and look at the pictures and maps, but they were rewarded with tree-kibbles, which they deserved because they planted the Bur Oak correctly.

On Saturday the people from Great Rivers Greenway and Trailnet who made this planting possible came to dedicate this tree to Susie and to wish her happy birthday. None of them knew her, but had heard wonderful things about her. It was very emotional to hear them speak about her influence. We wrote tree-grams, which we hung temporarily in the tree for picture-taking because they are not allowed in national parks. They will be hung in Spokane’s mystery birthday tree when I find it. Someone suggested that I put my tree-gram under the mulch we shoveled. I like that idea because the disintegrating paper will feed the roots and send my thoughts through the entire tree. Perhaps I will do this for every anniversary tree I plant.

I don’t know how to thank the wonderful, welcoming people of Missouri for making this dream of mine come true.”

Read more about the Susie Forest Project here.

Photos: (top) St. Louis advocates help Nancy MacKerrow (center) plant a Susie Tree near the Gateway Arch; (center) Advocate Susie Stephens remains an inspiration for countless bicyclists nearly a decade after her tragic death. 

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