Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Susan Geise and I live in Augusta, Montana. I’m a daughter, mother, grandmother, wife and liver and lover of life. I’m a godmother to numerous baby girls, a mentor to others and a friend to many. I was born December 26, 1949 at the Colorado River Indian Reservation Hospital to Eugene Stephen Stergios and Dorothy Stergios. I attended Catholic schools, trained altar boys in Latin for the Mass, briefly considered inaugurating my own religious order (the veils would be pink) and began memorizing obscure details about saints of the Roman Catholic Church.
I was an outstanding student and loved school, except for mathematics, an aversion that will continue to my dying day. By the sixth grade I had a special antipathy for nuns, and almost all clergy. After graduating from Sacred Heart Academy in Missoula in 1968, I attended Seattle University where I had been admitted to the Humanities Honors Program. I later attended the University of Montana and Smith College.
I’ve led quite the fascinating professional life. I have been a researcher, a legislator, a lobbyist, a policy advisor, a public radio commentator, a teacher, a librarian and I even seriously considered becoming a nun. Currently, I am serving as a Commissioner for Lewis and Clark County.
Besides my wonderful children and grandchildren, my most significant personal story of recent years is about my husband. In my 57th year, Ross Geise and two Canada geese caught me by surprise and occasioned the happiest day of my life. I had no way of knowing that I was destined to be the beekeeper’s wife all along. I have known no greater joy.
Let’s talk about public service and how not enough women serve. Tell us about your experience in politics and what drew you to that world.
I guess I was a natural. I was elected to the Montana legislature in 1988 and was considered to be among the most naturally talented lawmakers in many years. I loved it, and when I lost narrowly the following cycle, in a smear campaign that vilified and falsified my voting record, it was a hurt from which it took many years to recover.
I later became a lobbyist, and never took on a client in whose cause I did not believe. I have always been a ferocious competitor. Public service often means you are an opponent of many, and I have made my living for many years as political gladiator, and at least in my eyes, truth teller. My opposition research was a mainstay of Republican campaigns for many election cycles, and one of my proudest moments came during the 1992 election cycle that swept Republicans into power that they held until 2004. It was the biggest power shift in the country that year.
I then traveled to Poland, where I assisted the Solidarity Party to regain control of the government. One pregnant Polish woman told me that she hoped her child would be a girl and that she would name her after me. The interpreters and I could not stop crying. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.
I did leave politics for a time. I went back to school and in 2003, I graduated from Smith College and began to teach middle school in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of New York City. I missed Montana and returned home where I taught writing and social studies to De La Salle Blackfeet students on the reservation in Browning. But politics came calling again…
Tell me about someone who you admire.
I learned at an early age that the main person in my life was my father, an avid sportsman. I became convinced that no task was too demanding, if it included time with my dad. Therefore, I learned in a preverbal age to not whine, or complain of being too cold, too tired or too hungry. Whiners were left behind, and I was determined to be part of the action.
For those looking at you from the outside, what might they be surprised to hear?
I have always stated that I’m the least qualified person in the room.
What are some books that have made the most impact on your life and why?
Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has influenced me as much as any book. Its theme is that something is expected of us as humans, serving a larger purpose, that gives our life meaning. My favorite part is that our intention is everything, especially in love, and that love is so powerful that even death cannot defeat it. Loving someone is not dependent on proximity or even being alive; love is stronger than separation, even by death.
“If” by Rudyard Kipling has also had a huge impact on me. I surround myself, and my office is filled with visual reminders of what I am called to be; quotes from Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, my dad, “If”, CS Lewis. I try to take note of them as I struggle with issues, especially ones that are controversial. I try to keep stepping up, not giving up. As MLK used to say, “It is always the right time to do the right thing.”
What are some of your favorite quotes?
The Fates lead those who will; the rest they drag.” Epictetus, Roman Stoic
“Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing affright you. All things are passing. Only God never changes. Patient endurance attaineth all things. He who has God lacks nothing. Only God suffices.” St. Teresa of Avila, Spanish mystic.
“Incline my heart to your Will, O Lord.” Liturgy of the Hours, Benedictines
“Experience is a hard school and fools will learn in no other.” Benjamin Franklin
It has taken me years to learn and believe these core truths. My life, full of twists tortured from my hubris heart, is at last more centered, more peaceful.
Now that you’re more centered and more peaceful, what’s one piece of advice you’d give your twenty-year-old self?
I’d tell myself that seasons of my life will require differing responses to the question posed to Alexander the Great: Would you rather be a brilliant shooting star defining the dark firmament or the modest lamp that glows long but dimly?
And probably the best advice for life ever, which is much better than that “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” crap – Plod slowly, but only if you have to. Cantering is much more light hearted, covering all the ground you can while still enjoying the view. And, when it’s time to jump, make it a high one, and pick your approach carefully. Live your life. Senses are a great gift of God. And when you shed, drop the luggage like worn out follicles, useless and dull. Love hugely and without restraint or regret. Listen, but don’t necessarily obey. It’s up to you, you know.
Any hobbies outside of your work that you enjoy?
My creativity only extends to both cursing and cooking. I do them each with great abandon.
How do you handle life’s difficulties?
I have always taken the more adventure fraught path. This makes me a scintillating cocktail party guest, I suppose, but makes it nearly impossible for me to sustain any long term exclusive relationships. Who would want to partner with someone who insists on buying all her clothes used (except underwear and shoes; I do have standards.) or who haunts rummage sales looking for quality at bargain basement fares. Who could count on someone who tries to live the real words of Jesus, not the claptrap shoved by most people who consider themselves Christian? I am not faint of heart, and neither should anyone who loves me be.
I have worked my heart out, and have been willing to put my money where my mouth is. My mom drank coffee out of a mug that proclaimed my State Government Employee of the Year status for struggling to keep electricity rates affordable; the same Republican controlled Commission fired me two weeks later for refusing to do political work on the state’s dime. Best regular job I ever had, consistent money, paid vacation, interesting and important work. Regulating billion dollar companies with no more than a whip and a chair, and the diligent workers whose expertise needed to be marshaled and whose work needed to be recognized. What a privilege. What a rush.
Leaving the Montana PSC allowed me to think of my life in totally new ways. I had proven that I would sacrifice virtually everything for an important principle. Armed with that knowledge, I decided to live my life without benefit of a net. This was faith in the raw.
I have decided not to say NO when called; by the Jesuits to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Christian Brothers to Browning, Lewis and Clark County, by the Creator to whatever is next for me.
You seem like such a strong and wise woman. I’m assuming your upbringing had a lot to do with that, but is it something more?
I’m from a smart family. We were taught that we were a little better than other people because our standards were higher. Charmagne Wailes was my best friend in the fifth grade and I was really jealous of her stewardess uniform. I hated Sister Mary Rose Collette, BVM, and as you already know, I hated math, too. I love snuggling in the winter. I love to drink tea, but really only to smell coffee. Being a mom was a blast. I am really good at politics and equally good at making policy. Not many people can say that. I’m happier now than I have ever been, once I learned that if you don’t get what you want, want what you get.
And you can take refuge in the idea of ‘irony’. Being just too cool for school, too hip, too savvy; surely insulating you from what lies hiding in your heart. Too glib, too sophisticated, because lurking in my gut thoughts and memories too beautiful to bear, bringing me to embarrassing tear torrents. I’m not sophisticated, nor cool, nor controlled, but raw and somehow divine.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
When I get wrapped around the axle, I have to remember what I know but have forgotten. That the Creator has a plan in which each being has a part to play, however small it seems to be, and that the Creator gave me unique gifts that I will be called upon to render an accounting for those abilities. It is the contemplation of those life choices (an eternal Aha!) moment that is both heaven and hell. After shuffling off this mortal coil, we will see through the eyes of God, and fully appreciate the elusive “whys” of our lives and gaze upon the effects of our choices and come to realize that each being is forever intertwined, all creations of the Divine.