August 15, 2011

Cancer shaped her life; now Sue Snyder helps others cope

/ The Detroit News

East Lansing— Eight years ago, Sue Snyder learned she had breast cancer.

The wife of Gov. Rick Snyder and mother of three children, Snyder received her diagnosis two decades after her mother died following a 13-year battle with breast cancer.

Snyder underwent radiation treatment, had a bilateral mastectomy and has been cancer free since 2003. The ordeal led her to put breast cancer awareness on her agenda of causes she'll embrace as Michigan's first lady.

"It's so important that you get support from everybody," said Snyder, who served as an honorary chair of the Susan G. Komen Detroit Race for the Cure in May. "It not only affects you but it affects your whole family and your friends. (When) they are all there for you, that's what gets you through it."

In one of her first interviews since her husband took office Jan. 1, Snyder, 55, talked about the support she will also lend to an organization for grieving children, noted what she hopes her husband will accomplish in office and weighed in on a few political issues. She also discussed how she plans to keep most of her focus on her two daughters and son, despite her new role.

"My dad used to work a lot and my mom was sick a lot — she had (multiple sclerosis) too — so I grew up really fast," Snyder said. "So I feel like I need to be there for my children. My husband has that same feeling. It's really important to both of us."

When the governor was elected, Snyder consulted former first lady Michelle Engler for advice on maintaining balance between her private life and new role.

"Make it what you want it to be and make it work for you, as opposed to having the position and the people around you shape you," Engler told Snyder.

Since then, Snyder has championed two causes.

In May, she stepped into the public spotlight for the first time to be a spokeswoman for Ele's Place, a 20-year-old organization in Lansing and Ann Arbor that supports children who are grieving over a loved one's death. Snyder learned of the organization after she was invited to an Ele's Place fundraiser in fall 2009, and was touched by the stories of those in the program.

Even before she was first lady, Ele's Place President and CEO Laurie Baumer asked Snyder to speak on behalf of the organization as it works to expand.

"She has said over and over, 'I am not a therapist, I am a mom and I care about kids so I would want something like this available to my children if they ever they needed it,' " Baumer said.

Snyder has since promoted the website of The Michigan Network for Grieving Children (, and soon will be appearing in television ads and on billboards.

The first lady said what Ele's Place provides is important because if children don't get the right counseling, their grades, social skills and more can suffer.

Asked if she knew anyone as a young person who suffered the death of a loved one, she said she didn't. But it prompted memories of her mom.

"I lost my mother when I was 27," Snyder said. "Now that I look back I feel like I probably never grieved and I probably should have gotten some kind of … even though my mom was sick for a long time."

Involved in cancer cure race

Snyder also served as an honorary chair of the local Race for the Cure. Clad in a pink "Survivor" T-shirt and cap, she walked the race with her husband and daughters.

"It was very inspiring to see all those women out there," Snyder said. "So many of them go through so much."

Race organizers were thrilled with Snyder's participation.

"When you tie someone who is a public figure to something that can touch all of us … that makes all the difference in the world," said Maureen Keenan Meldrum, race chair.

Before coming to office, Snyder and the governor had been involved in other philanthropic activities, including United Way. They've set up two endowments at the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, including a scholarship fund for kids to go to Ann Arbor's Daycroft Montessori School in Ann Arbor, which their daughters attended.

They have been thoughtful about what's important to them, said Cheryl Elliott, president and CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.

"Both she and Rick come from modest backgrounds and they feel like they've been blessed," Elliott said. "She makes time for this and it's a sincere part of who she is."

Dearborn roots

Snyder grew up Susan Kerr and lived in Dearborn for 30 years. Her father, the late Ivan Kerr, worked in downtown Detroit as a defense attorney for product liabilities while her mother, Jane, was a practicing child psychologist. She grew up with two older brothers, John and Pete, who still live in Dearborn.

Snyder graduated from Dearborn High in 1974, attended Henry Ford Community College for a year before going to Western Michigan University for two years.

From 1978-83, Snyder worked as the executive assistant for an attorney in Southfield.

She then worked for four years as an executive assistant at Coopers & Lybrand, now PricewaterhouseCoopers, in Detroit. That's where she met the man who would help Gateway Computers grow into a worldwide corporation, manage a $100 million venture-capital fund, build their personal fortune and be elected as Michigan's 48th governor.

The couple married in 1987 at Cherry Hill Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, and still go on dates.

When asked about his wife, the governor said she's "fabulous."

"She's a great mother and wife," he said, adding she helped him become less of a workaholic.

Snyder laughed at the comment, saying she just encourages him to break away from work. "I just say, 'Come on! Life is too short. You can come back and do that later,' " she said.

Snyders family-oriented

A year after getting married, Snyder became a stay-at-home mom following the birth of the couple's first child, Jeff, now 22. They later had Melissa, 19, and Kelsey, 15.

During the summer, the family typically moves to their lake home in west Michigan where they grill, boat and relax.

But this summer, they've also spent time on Mackinac Island, where Snyder is sprucing up the governor's mansion.

Snyder is down-to-earth, dedicated to her family, and a true partner to her husband, said Andrea Fischer Newman, a University of Michigan Regent and Republican activist who met the first lady several years ago.

"She's always been very friendly, fun to talk to, interesting," said Newman, a Snyder acquaintance. "Both she and Rick are articulate, intelligent, engaging people and it's clear they respect one another."

The Snyders are family-oriented, added Karl Couyoumjian, whose daughter is friends with the Snyder girls.

"Sue is the kind of mother that you felt comfortable with your kids being around," he said. "You always knew there was strong, kind guidance and supervision. They are very engaged parents."

Likewise, Couyoumjian and his wife view the Snyder daughters' demeanor as testimony to the people who raised them.

"You can tell a lot about parents by their kids," he said.

Snyder is confident and self-assured and encouraged her husband to run for office.

She doesn't think much of the effort to recall him. "It's a very, very small minority and it's a waste of taxpayers' money," she said.

She hopes he can revamp the way the state does business before he leaves his position. "There are so many people out there who get what he is doing," Snyder said. "We all have to make sacrifices because we don't have any money. … Then there are these few people it's all about themselves. When it comes to making sacrifices, they don't want to."

Snyder said she and her husband see the world through the same political lens.

She declined to speak about political issues, other than to say she is "pro-family" when asked her position on abortion.

Snyder declined to comment on high-profile women in politics, such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann or Hillary Clinton.

She did, however, cite the late Betty Ford as the first lady she admires most on the presidential level. Ford died in July. Snyder and her husband agreed that Ford's playful side sounded a lot like her. "She was just a woman ahead of her time," Snyder said. "But yet she was so strong on her family and that's what I always say, my family comes first."

Just what Snyder hopes her legacy will be, too.

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