Life-long learning is the lifeblood of Sue ConnorAs Sue Connor marched into the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center a couple of years ago for her graduation from The College of St. Scholastica, it took all the composure she had just to keep going.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
As Sue Connor marched into the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center a couple of years ago for her graduation from The College of St. Scholastica, it took all the composure she had just to keep going.
“All of the faculty members who attended the ceremony were lined up where the graduates came in,” she related. “We had to walk through the gauntlet as they applauded us. I kept my head down most of the way because I teared all up. I was so humbled to think they would do that.”
To be sure, what Connor had accomplished was something to be proud of – not only did she earn a bachelor’s degree in organizational behavior at the age of 57, but she graduated summa cum laude as well. Just being there was a major accomplishment for this life-long learner.
“When I was young, I struggled all the way through school and it was amazing I even made it through,” she admitted. “But when I discovered that I liked to learn, then there was this drive that kicked in. It took years of taking a class here and a class there, going all different directions and following all sorts of bunny trails along the way. But when I finally got to that place, it was a matter of, ‘Do it and do it right, because I’m only going to do it once.’”
Connor was raised in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, the oldest girl in a family of eight children. Her mother grew up on the Fond du Lac Reservation, married young and settled in to raise a large family.
Connor graduated from Central High School at the age of 17 and then went to Minneapolis and worked for Northern States Power, West Publishing and Abbott Hospital.
“I had no education [beyond high school],” she said, “so it was clerk jobs and a nurse’s aide position.”
She married her husband, Skip, a year after meeting him on a blind date through a friend of hers. A native Duluthian, he was all too glad to bring her back to Duluth, where she said she continued to work a series of “oddball jobs.”
“I was very fortunate to get on-the-job training as I went along,” she said.
Newton Friedman, a civil rights attorney in Duluth, trained her in as a legal secretary.
“He stepped out of the box and gave people breaks,” she said. “The gal who had the job before me had had no training, either.”
After two-and-a-half years at that office, she took a job in vocational rehabilitation with the state of Minnesota. When she and her husband moved to Baudette for a year, she took a position as an administrative assistant for Lake of the Woods Nursing Service, where she received on-the-job training in medical terminology.
“I think I was still part of the era of a lot of on-the-job training, where they would train you as you went along,” she said. “Of course, the pay was lower because I was essentially a trainee.”
After the Connors moved back to Duluth once again, Sue worked at another attorney’s office before switching to an electrical manufacturing company called Square D where she learned how to read blueprints and other technical aspects of electrical work. When the company closed down after she’d been with them for 11 years, one of the electrical distributors she had worked with created a position for her.
In the mid-1990s, she was hired by the Fond du Lac Reservation as an executive secretary, eventually moving on to a job with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, where she worked for 11 years.
“I traveled to 16 different schools, promoting post-secondary education and life skills,” she explained. “I worked with kids in grades 6-12 and also went into the St. Louis County Jail and worked with people who didn’t have their GED, trying to get them motivated to continue the process of getting their GED. We worked together on career exploration, decision-making, and that type of thing.”
She loved that job, but when the grant funding ran out, she went back to work for the Fond du Lac Reservation in the field of employee relations and assistance.
“If somebody has personal things they’re dealing with such as relationship or financial issues, anger or substance abuse, or if they’re just struggling, I refer them to resources that are out there, encourage them to make right decisions and try to work with them so they can resolve whatever their situation is,” she explained. “The employee relations part of my job deals with such things as employee problems with a supervisor or a co-worker, and I act as an outside neutral person to come in to help them work through that problem.”
The third aspect of her job involves doing management supervisor training.
Connor said her job is not only interesting but ever-changing. Her training in employee relations has also served her in good stead in her church life, where she is a certified minister for the River Church in Duluth, a congregation of the Assemblies of God where she has been a member since 1998. She is active in outreach, is on the prayer team, teaches on Wednesday nights, and has been extremely involved in the women’s ministry and reaching out to new people.
“It’s part of my job to encourage people and help with decisions,” she said. “It’s turned into my lifestyle.”
One of the ways that Connor has discovered to encourage young people is through clowning.
“Clowns can make people happy,” she said. “My aunt was a clown for a while and it really inspired me. One day, I went ahead and explored what it would take to be a clown. I got a DVD to learn how to make balloon animals and then I went online to start looking at outfits. I knew I wanted something big and bright and cheery, though I hadn’t decided what my clown name was going to be. It was when I picked out a bright yellow wig that I finally decided my name was going to be ‘Joy,’ because ‘the joy of the Lord is our strength.’”
Now Connor appears as Joy the Clown at outreach picnics and also visits birthday parties on the reservation.
She and her husband live in an old renovated farmhouse along the North Shore between Duluth and Two Harbors.
Over the years, they have taken in many foster children.
“We both like kids a lot,” she said. “Even at church, we started inviting young people out to our house for dinner, and then they started inviting their friends to come along as well. In 2000, one of them asked us what we were doing on New Year’s Eve, and they asked if they could come out and spend the night. We ended up having eight or nine of them sleeping all over the living room!”
In their free time, Connor and her husband have a passion for ice fishing.
“I love ice fishing far more than summer fishing,” she said. “We’re spoiled – we rent a heated house and that makes a big difference. A couple of years ago, in one season, I got a 10-pound walleye in December that I had to haul in hand-over-hand with an old-fashioned pole, and in February I got a 20-pound northern. My husband asked, ‘How are you doing this?’ I told him it was a matter of time management because I can’t get out fishing all that much. When I go out, I need to fish, I need to do it right and move on!’”
She also enjoys hunting, gardening and canning.
“We have three huge gardens, and the reason why is because we like to share it,” she said. “We load up boxes of vegetables and make sure other people get some. We have lots of produce and do canning, dehydrating and freezing. When fruit is on sale in the summer, we buy it in quantity and either dehydrate it or make it into juice. Right now on our shelves we have cherry juice, strawberry-rhubarb juice, raspberry juice, cranberry juice, apple juice and tomato juice. By making your own, you control what goes in it so you don’t have the high sugar levels that most of the juice in the stores has.”
Through her work with the church, Connor has also discovered she likes to read books specific to studying the Bible and has accrued an entire library of Biblical studies and reference books.
Most recently, Connor, an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Reservation, was selected for the second cohort of the Native Nation Rebuilders program, sponsored through the Bush Foundation.
“The whole focus is for people in the cohorts to identify something that would enhance and improve their community,” explained Connor. “Though I had been encouraged to apply for it, I couldn’t decide what I would do. It was two days before the deadline when I came up with the idea that I could do something on work ethics.”
And so, she filled out her application and was one of 19 selected for the two-year program, which supports the self-determination of the 23 sovereign Native nations that share the same geography as Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
“Everyone is bringing something different to the table,” Connor said. “That’s what’s so exciting about it.”
During the second year of the program, each member of the cohort will be assigned a mentor to work with him or her on their individual project.
“My personal belief is that all of us should have a mentor in every phase of our lives, and all of us should have one or two peers that we trust implicitly and to whom we can go for anything,” said Connor. “Then, we should all be mentoring someone, too. That’s my philosophy for life – that all of us should be at that place.”
Connor is contemplating pursuing her master’s degree in ministry, with an emphasis on leadership, and she said the Native Nation Builders program should be an excellent training ground.
“Just think of the skills that you learn when you get involved with this sort of group,” she said. “I’m excited about what they’re putting forth, and they’re going to be getting into some leadership things as well.”
While Connor is modest about her accomplishments, she is enthusiastic about continuing to learn about everything and anything she can.
“I love it, I just love it!” she attested. “Some people just don’t get it, but it opens so many doors in life.”