By Barbara Sherf
Purple Teva sandals pulled me into a conversation with Suzanne Latham in 2006, and eventually our friendship bloomed. It was winter. She had thick socks on and the purple sandals. I was working out at Curves gym in Chestnut Hill when she walked in, with her fabulous footwear and big red-rimmed oval glasses. I knew the moment I laid eyes on her that she was a character and a free spirit, and that is how I will forever remember her.
I normally don’t engage in much small talk at the gym. I was there for the sole purpose of working out and zoning out. The music was loud, and I wanted to remain somewhat anonymous. When people find out you are a regular contributor to the local paper, they either become suspicious or want to pitch you their story or cause. I wanted none of that. But the purple Teva sandals were too much to overlook, as were Suzanne’s winning smile and rosy, round cheeks.
Somewhere along the way we exchanged contact information, and then met for coffee. Coffee turned into lunches as I learned more about Suzanne. She shared with me that she had grown up in Cleveland with a sister, Nadyne, 9 years her senior. She had moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 2005, after living in a scenic mill house near in Waynesboro, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley for many years with her former husband, Stuart Goldsmith. I have since learned that Ruby was her maiden name, and the name Latham came from a man she had been married to briefly after graduating from Syracuse University.
She and Goldsmith met in Michigan when they were both in the advertising business. She was a copywriter. Goldsmith eventually sold his advertising firm, and the couple moved to Virginia, where she became an active volunteer. She was instrumental in the development of the Waynesboro Riverfest, an arts festival designed to raise money and awareness about the need to preserve the natural beauty of South River. She also helped start the Blue Ridge Recycler newspaper, and she shared copies with me since I have worked on recycling outreach campaigns. She was passionate about ecology and preservation of the environment and natural resources, as I am.
Bill and Shirley Moulton, now living in New Hampshire, shared this glimpse of Suzanne from her Legacy.com guestbook: “If you lived in Waynesboro while Suzanne was around, you could be sure that she would include you in one of her projects to improve the community. She always had something to do and was never too shy to ask for help … Both Shirley and I were so proud and fortunate to team up with such a valued activist.”
When her husband died, Suzanne wanted to start over, and reached out to a high school classmate, Diane Dunning, who now lives with her husband in Blue Bell. Suzanne knew nobody else in the area. I thought about how brave she was to make the move and visited her at her first home in Germantown. A year later she moved to a condo in Mount Airy and held an open house there, where I got a further look into her life through American folk and native art pieces that she and Stuart collected in Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and surrounding areas.
When I look at a wall hanging in my bathroom that says ‘Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often,’ I think of Suzanne. She enjoyed tutoring a 10-year-old boy and his younger sister, visiting their North Philadelphia school or taking them on field trips to the Wissahickon Valley. Her main passion in more recent years was playing bridge. She loved the game. Apparently she was well enough off financially that for decades she did not have to take a paying job to support herself.
According to Dunning, “This past year she came up with the idea of taking a train across country with her fellow bridge players. They played bridge all day while watching the scenery go by. That’s something Suzanne would think up and then follow through on.” Suzanne learned to play the game at the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment, and then moved out to the Whitemarsh Parks and Recreation program and the Ambler Senior Center.
“She started here playing bridge, but moved out wherever she could find a good game. She was passionate about bridge. She will be remembered as a free spirit and quite a character,” said Mary Zell, Executive Director of the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment.
Over the summer, I had the honor of being one of a half dozen women who attended a birthday party in Suzanne’s honor at the home of Diane Dunning. It was a magical evening.
Then the e-mail came. Christmas Eve. Diane asked me to call her. It was urgent and had to do with our friend, Suzanne. My thoughts raced. Maybe she was rushed to Chestnut Hill Hospital for some sort of emergency, and I was the closest to the ER. What could be wrong with Suzanne? Why was Diane contacting me on Christmas Eve?
I had talked to Suzanne earlier that week, encouraging her to come to a tree trimming party at my home with some of my other ‘gal pals.’ She told me that she was off to Cleveland the next day to spend Christmas with her sister and her family and that she was not where she needed to be in terms of packing. I had previewed a DVD my business partner, D. Mike Smith, had helped her put together with old family home movies and Suzanne’s narration of her memories of growing up in Cleveland. It was a fabulous tribute to her sister, and she was eager to share it in person. Smith spent many hours with Suzanne to get the video ‘just right.’
Suzanne never made it to Cleveland to deliver the DVD. She was four hours into her trip when she was involved in a one-car accident on I-80 just outside of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. She didn’t have a computer or cell phone, so gadgets while driving did not distract her. We may never know what caused the accident.
I thought Suzanne was in her early 60s, but have since learned she was 69. I believe the motto of ‘Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often’, proved to be the key to her youthful spirit and appearance. Suzanne loved to hop on a train and run into the city for a movie at the Ritz and an expensive meal. If she couldn’t find a buddy, she would often go solo. I once hooked up with her on a train out of town and wished I had been a guest at her table that evening versus attending a dull professional ‘rubber chicken’ dinner. I now think twice about attending the ‘rubber chicken’ dinners because of that encounter. Life is too short.
Her high school friend, Diane Dunning, shared some details about her love of food: “She would research new restaurants and keep lists of restaurants, theaters and museums she wanted to visit … And she was also a talented artist painting primarily landscapes, but it’s not something she pursued with a formal education. She just had natural talent.”
Dunning, an artist by training, noted her friend’s penchant for travel to places like Vietnam and India and more recently stateside. Dunning remembers a family project in which Suzanne cut up old dresses and pasted them on family photos that dated back to the Civil War. “She thought it would liven the images up, and I guess in a way it did, but it was a pretty far out idea that she just had to see through.”
At one point I was trying to introduce Suzanne to another woman I knew, Nancy Hohns, who lives at the Hill House. When I got them to a dinner at the Chestnut Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church, they looked at each other and laughed, because they were next-door neighbors in the 11-story building … When informed of Suzanne’s death, Nancy teared up when she remembered her last conversation with Suzanne.
Suzanne is survived by her loving sister Nadyne Rufe of Parma Heights, Ohio her nieces and nephews Stephen Rufe (Sue) of Parma, Cynthia Rice (John) of Downingtown, PA, Todd Rufe (Laura) of Cuyahoga Falls and Andrea Weber (James) of Sebastian, FL, seven great-nieces, one great-nephew and one great-great-nephew. Preceding Suzanne in death was her husband, Stuart Goldsmith, and her parents.
A memorial service is being planned for Sunday, Jan. 23, where we plan to have a fabulous meal and champagne toast. She would have liked that. Anyone who would like to attend should call 215-233-8022 or email Barb@CommunictionsPro.com.