SWINOMISH, Wash. – When it came to children and education, it was clear to Swinomish and neighboring communities where Susan M. Edwards-Wilbur’s priorities were.
“Susan loved all the kids of this area, and showed her love through decades of service on our school board, but she loved her Swinomish children best,” Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby said. “No matter what family they were from, they were all ‘her’ kids. Their dreams were her dreams. Their victories, hers. Their time of sadness too. She was with them and for them every step of the way.”
When she was in her late 20s, Edwards-Wilbur – her Swinomish name was Lop-che-ahl – was elected to the Swinomish Senate and the La Conner School Board; she was the first American Indian to serve on the latter. She was director of the Swinomish Day Care Center since its inception in 1992. She was previously Swinomish’s recreation director and also worked as a youth alcohol counselor.
As a member of the Swinomish Senate, Edwards-Wilbur made sure that children were the first consideration when the Senate commissioned a buildings and facilities plan to look at deferred maintenance and space needs. At the top of the project list were a youth center, an early education center and a prevention center.
On Sept. 25, the Susan M. Edwards-Wilbur Early Learning Center was dedicated in her memory. Edwards-Wilbur passed away Jan. 29, 2004, after suffering a series of strokes. She was 49.
The early learning center is part of an expanded, remodeled community center originally built in 1964. For 40 years, it was a community gathering place – a center for cultural and recreation programs and other activities.
“We’ve educated our children here. Played Indian basketball – and donkey basketball – on this court. We’ve held sobriety and education dinners, broken bread together after contentious elections, held Christmas and Halloween parties, and celebrated more than a few weddings here,” Cladoosby said, adding that he and his wife, Nina, were married in the center 28 years ago. “We also shared many meals celebrating the lives of our dearly departed in this very room.”
Using $3 million in Swinomish and U.S. Housing and Urban Development funding, the building was reconstructed and expanded. The La Conner School District donated computers for a computer lab. The center houses the Swinomish Early Education Center Preschool Program, a partnership of Skagit Valley Head Start, Swinomish Preschool and the LaConner School District Special Education Program.
The dedication took place on Native American Day, a holiday at Swinomish and in the neighboring city of La Conner, where most Swinomish children attend public schools. Participating in the dedication were representatives of the tribal, town and county governments, the La Conner School District, as well as the BIA.
The center has sweeping views of Swinomish channel, which winds through the Swinomish reservation from Padilla Bay to Skagit Bay. The center is next door to the Swinomish administration offices and across the street from the smokehouse.
Displayed photographs gave a glimpse into the center’s life in the community: Edwards-Wilbur as a child, participating with other children in a community event; Louise Joe and her grandson, Robert Joe Jr.; summer school students Brian Cladoosby, Cathi Edwards, Rudi Edwards, Sharon Edwards, Gwen John, Debbie Johns, Glenda Williams and Starina Williams, circa 1970 – ’71.
“When I come in this space, I can feel the generations who have been here before,” Cladoosby said. “You can feel it too, if you try. If you close your eyes, you can see the namings that have taken place here. You can smell the frybread that has been served at funerals. You can hear the shouts of so many basketball games. Many, if not most, of the milestones of our community, both happy and sad, have been marked here.”
Lunch was served in the remodeled gym; canvas was placed on the hardwood to protect the court. It was fitting that the event was held on Native American Day; in an earlier interview, former La Conner Mayor Eron Berg remembered that when the holiday was started to bridge the relationship between LaConner and Swinomish, “Susan spent time organizing the activities, the games, the canoe events. She was the first one there in the morning and last to leave in the afternoon.”
Janie Beasley, Edwards-Wilbur’s sister and realty officer for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, said of her sister’s devotion to public service, “It took six people to replace Susan.” Beasley serves on the La Conner School Board, a brother serves on the Swinomish Senate, another sister serves as day care director and kitchen manager. Senators took over Edwards-Wilbur’s positions on various committees.
“Her heart was for kids and this building is all for kids,” Beasley said.
Cladoosby said Edwards-Wilbur was a “force of nature” when it came to causes she believed in. “She was stronger than a cedar. More constant than the Skagit [River]. More gentle than the dew on a fall morning. And, when roused, Susan was mightier than Mount Baker.”
Cladoosby said Edwards-Wilbur, who was vice chairwoman during the first eight years of his chairmanship, taught him how to be chairman. “She sure let me know when I was getting out of line, but she also supported me and inspired me to dedicate myself to the betterment of the Swinomish people,” he said.
“Susan was a living example of selfless love. No one had to tell her that elected office was about public service – about serving the public. She knew it and lived it every day, even through incredible physical challenges.”
He added, “When the tough questions come to our Senate table, Susan’s example of service to the people still guides us today.”
Richard Walker and Molly Neely-Walker are correspondents reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org