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Susan Swartz, longtime Press Democrat reporter, columnist, dies at 76

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How To Get Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention Hotline: 855-587-6373

24-hour Emergency Mental Health Unit: 800-746-8181

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) SUICIDE

Resources also are available for those who have lost someone to suicide.

Sutter VNA & Hospice offers several support groups, including those for survivors of suicide, children who have experienced a loss and parents who have lost a child. Call 707-535-5780 for more information.

Susan Swartz, an endlessly intrigued, courageous and entertaining writer whose work enlivened The Press Democrat for 35 years and, for much of that time, newspapers across America, died Tuesday.

The Sebastopol resident, who charmed and touched the hearts of a large crowd at the memorial service for her husband six weeks ago, stepped from a cliff at Bodega Head in an apparent suicide. She was 76.

For decades, she and fellow journalist Bob Klose were bright stars at the newspaper and in myriad Sonoma County arts, political, charitable and other circles. The pair of adventurous, vibrant souls had been married for 39 years when Klose died from complications of cancer Nov. 21.

Swartz was brilliant, funny and frank as she headed up the Jan. 11 program to celebrate Klose’s life. But she was suffering.

“For a little under a year, she struggled with a major depression,” said one of her three daughters, Jenni Klose of Santa Rosa. “Combined with the loss of her husband, my dad, there was just a level of sadness she could no longer bear.”

Until the death of the love of her life, Swartz lived fully and with great ardor, curiosity and compassion, said daughter Samantha Swartz of Petaluma.

After Klose died, she said, her mom “just felt his loss so deeply, and it was so frightening and devastating to her.”

Susan Swartz discovered her passion for newspapering in a high school journalism class in Meadville, Pennsylvania. While writing a Press Democrat column that displayed her devout feminism and the vast range of her interests and talent, she authored, in 2000, her first of three books, “Juicy Tomatoes,” focused on the true stories of a group of women 50 and older.

Just last year she debuted a novel, “Laughing in the Dark.” In an interview, she said it was based loosely “on late-night discussions I’ve had through the years with friends over the scary and the silly.

“The book started to take form when our party time got interrupted by a new darkness, the kind that creeps in when you start to worry about dying and getting sick and losing people and what happens if your brain turns to oatmeal.”

Throughout most of her life, Swartz exhibited a voracious appetite for discovery, conversation, personal stories and new experiences. In 1975, she took a one-year leave of absence from the PD to paddle the Missouri River with daughter Samantha and her first husband, Bill Swartz.

When Susan Swartz married PD colleague Klose, a divorced father of two, she took on his two daughters as her own.

“She was our strong matriarch,” said Greta Klosevitz of Santa Rosa, mother of two of Swartz and Klose’s three grandchildren. “She wanted us all to be involved and to contribute.

“She was an example of how to love and how to take care of each other, and how to find the joy and beauty in life.”

Klosevitz’s sister, Jenni Klose, recalls their adoptive mother would “sing and dance in the house to ‘I Am Woman’ for a pick-me-up.”

Swartz traveled, practiced yoga, hosted a radio program on Sonoma County’s listener-supported KRCB, wrote plays and scripts and performed improv. She seized every opportunity to be on the beach near Bodega Bay or in Massachusetts. She loved the snow.

How To Get Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention Hotline: 855-587-6373

24-hour Emergency Mental Health Unit: 800-746-8181

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) SUICIDE

Resources also are available for those who have lost someone to suicide.

Sutter VNA & Hospice offers several support groups, including those for survivors of suicide, children who have experienced a loss and parents who have lost a child. Call 707-535-5780 for more information.

“She was interested in popular fiction, literature, news, music, fashion — everything,” Samantha Swartz said.

Recalled close friend Miriam Silver of Sebastopol, who worked with Swartz at The Press Democrat before becoming a teacher, “Susan was always the person ready for a new adventure, whether that meant a news story, meeting new people, exploring a new city or country, a book, a museum, the opera.”

Said another longtime friend and fellow journalist and activist, Occidental’s Sara Peyton, “I’m trying to think: Is there anything Susan didn’t do?”

The former Susan Frey studied journalism at Ohio University. She would recall, “I went from the Erie Times News to the San Diego Evening Tribune, where I was hired the same day I applied because a reporter in the women’s section had just put in for maternity leave. Years later, I would land a job at The Press Democrat as quickly, taking over for another pregnant reporter.”

She was assigned at the start of her career to cover what she said were perceived as “womanly things”: Society, fashion, food.

She recalled in a Press Democrat column upon her quasi-retirement in 2008 that early on “women reporters didn’t cover courts or cops or politics ... I was in my 20s and flying to New York twice a year for fashion week to write about hemlines and whether belts would be wide or skinny next season.

She added, “Eventually I got to write about serious things ... my timing was perfect to report on the women’s movement as we became judges, construction workers and rock stars.”

At The Press Democrat, she distinguished herself as a news reporter with her coverage of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Sonoma County. Upon switching from reporter to columnist, she delved into women’s issues and, truly, just about everything else.

A good many of her columns focused on the story of a single person as a way to personalize and illuminate an issue.

For a column in April 1986, she spoke with a mom about her teen’s runaway drug use. Swartz wrote, “She uses the word ‘devastated’ frequently in telling her story ... Her son boasted how he’d snorted cocaine in class, behind a propped-up book ... When she told all this to his school counselor, ‘he sat and cried with me, he had children, too.’ ”

For a March 1992 column, Swartz focused on a former welfare mom who’d become an attorney in defiance of societal assumptions that such women are deadbeats out to work the system.

“She was never tempted to remain on welfare any longer than she needed it,” Swartz wrote. She quoted the up-by-the-bootstraps lawyer as saying, “I knew I was getting out and my kids were getting out.”

Swartz’s feminist-inspired columns were only part of her repertoire. “She wrote about all sorts of things,” said friend and fellow writer Peyton.

“Her columns weren’t just women’s columns. She wrote about the politics of the day. She could also write about shoulder pads,” Peyton said.

“I do think she had a big impact on the community. She helped knit the culture of the community together.”

Though Swartz’s columns weren’t all written from a feminist perspective, enough were to bring her one of her proudest achievements. Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh trashed her as a “Femi- Nazi.”

Catherine Barnett, who was a Press Democrat reporter along with Swartz and Klose and now is the paper’s executive editor, said, “In her writing, Susan gave voice to so many women at so many stages of our lives. She was quick, clever and had a light touch in her columns, which chronicled social change and were distributed by the New York Times.

“Susan was a fierce advocate but wickedly funny and quick to laugh,” Barnett continued. “She and Bob were one of the newsroom’s great romances. It’s a sad day here.”

Camp Meeker’s Mary Moore, one of Sonoma County’s most durable advocates of social justice, praised Swartz as “definitely one of the more progressive thinkers on the (PD) staff.

“In those days, it wasn’t that easy to get the word out. She gave us a voice.”

Amid all of the serious issues she took on, Swartz was tickled to have the Oxford English Dictionary credit her for being first to put into print the phrase, “bad hair day.”

She’d written in a column in July 1988, “Even those who emerge from the sea to casually braid their shiny wet vines into a thick coil with a hibiscus on the end also have bad-hair days.”

Swartz readily admitted that she may or may not have coined the phrase. An inveterate people watcher and public-places eavesdropper, she suspected that she may have overhead some teenage girls say it.

Regardless, Swartz once wrote, “Anyone who writes is hoping his or her words will be immortalized in some way. Although this is such a silly little thing, it has been really fun.”

Among the many endeavors that kept her on the go after she left the PD in 2008, Swartz wrote occasional columns for the West County Times and its sister papers throughout the county.

In a October 2013 column, she offered a bit of counsel on retirement — while making clear she’d never truly retired. She wrote:

“Here’s my advice: Curl up on the chaise lounge and purr for a while and then look for something that doesn’t require a blazer and makes you feel alive. The ukulele, I hear, is a kick. And break in some good hiking boots. You’ll need them for our march on Washington.”

It appears that Swartz had been depressed for some time when she drove Tuesday to the parking lot at the seaside bluffs of Bodega Head.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office reports that at about 12:20 p.m. a visitor to the popular lookout dialed 911. The caller said a woman had approached her and told her to call 911, then jumped off the cliff.

There hasn’t yet been positive identification of the body that was recovered from rocks at the bottom of the steep drop. Heartbroken relatives and friends of Swartz are confident that it was the mourning and despondent writer previously so full of life.

“I’m so sorry she won’t continue to lead me, because I looked to her for everything,” Samantha Swartz said. “She guided me in the direction of being the fullest expression of a woman. I will continue to aspire to her level.”

In addition to her three daughters and three grandchildren, Susan Swartz is survived by her sister, Nancy Damon of Ipswich, Massachusetts.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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