Friends, beneficiaries honor memory of philanthropist

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Jul. 10—As she stood viewing the procession of people who came to pay homage to a woman they all loved, Carlota Baca marveled at the gathering of young and old, rich and impoverished, artistic, political and intellectual.

They did not arrive to the shadow of San Ildefonso Pueblo's Black Mesa to mourn the death of the late Susan Herter, someone who tirelessly worked behind the scenes to help people who needed it, but rather to celebrate her nearly 100 years of life.

The event, held last month at La Capillita de la Sagrada Familia in Pajarito, included storytelling, laughter and fond recollections of a feisty, independent woman who helped funnel tens of millions of dollars in charitable funds to a number of nonprofits, particularly cultural entities.

Herter also founded, co-founded or served on the board on a number of local nonprofit, community and educational institutes.

To Baca, who knew Herter for years, the gathering of so many people drawn together by a woman who had touched so many lives was "almost like Susan was there, running things as usual."

And run them she did. Herter was known for attracting and collecting people from all walks of life who could and would do something to make things better for the city, state and nation as a whole.

The Illinois native, who came to New Mexico as a visitor in the 1930s and moved here in the late 1970s, was instrumental in starting and/or serving on the boards of such Santa Fe institutions as Cornerstones Community Partnerships, Think New Mexico and the North American Institute.

She was seemingly everywhere at once, those who knew her said, and yet always in the background. Notorious for her ability to remain backstage as others stood in the spotlight, Herter had requested no more than a three-sentence obituary for the newspapers and no big sendoff.

"She was very much preferred to be out of the limelight," said Steve Robinson, a longtime friend of Herter's. "She very much preferred to encourage others to do the out-front work."

Herter died in November of natural causes, just a month or so after her 97th birthday. But those who knew her want others to know about her and have since been speaking out about Herter's legacy.

Nevertheless, many of her New Mexico friends can say little, if anything, about her life before 1979, when she moved to New Mexico in her mid-50s. Sometime after that, she started a new chapter of philanthropy as executive director of the Thaw Charitable Trust.

Herter, born Susan Cable in Evanston, Ill., on Oct. 14, 1924, gave few interviews. A search of New Mexican archives dating back decades brought up only three references to her. Two were news briefs announcing her appointment to local nonprofit boards and one, from Aug. 31, 2001, featured a question-and-answer interview piece conducted by Dottie Indyke.

In that piece, Herter, who had by then been running the Thaw trust operation for seven years, said she met philanthropist Eugene Thaw when he rented her house in Pojoaque while appraising the estate of the late artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Sometime later, he asked her if she wanted to run the trust.

"I said giving away money was something I always wanted to do," Herter told Indyke.

Before that time, much of Herter's life and career was connected to the work of the late Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican businessman, politician and vice president who Herter met during World War II.

They first met when Herter worked for the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, later known as the Office for Inter-American Affairs, in Washington, D.C.

Herter said when Rockefeller became the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, "he took me with him as his assistant."

Later, when Rockefeller became involved with, and president of, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, he hired Herter as a liaison for the museum "which was interesting because I'd never even seen modern art before," Herter told Indyke.

When Rockefeller served as vice president under former President Gerald Ford, he hired Herter in January 1976 as his chief of staff.

Rockefeller, known as "Rocky" to many "moved very fast — physically, mentally, emotionally — and so do I," Herter said.

Ford, she said, was "an absolutely splendid person."

She said little else about these jobs, or her personal life, to new friends and business colleagues she met in New Mexico.

She would, however, open up about her childhood if prodded. In a 2003 kitchen table interview she granted to Nancy Arnon Agnew, Herter spoke mostly about her formative childhood in Chicago, where she attended the same private school as future first lady Nancy Davis Reagan. (Herter didn't like her.)

Herter said she later attended secretarial school and spent time in Mexico, where she learned to speak Spanish.

Many of Herter's friends said she was the most discreet person they had ever met — always asking questions, always seeking answers, always trying to fix problems that seemed unsolvable.

"I think all of life is an education," she told Agnew.

Married at least once, Herter said little to friends about that part of her life. In comments he gave about Herter at her memorial, Santa Fe journalist Bill Dupuy joked she would have made a good spy and that she left few fingerprints about her life.

"Susan's insistence on anonymity means we are naughty to be here and naughty to celebrate her against her wishes," he said. "Her final instructions were to allow her simply to vanish — no eulogies, no recitations of accomplishment, no gatherings in her honor. But it would be wrong for us to acquiesce to that perverse order."

Efforts on behalf of friends to nominate Herter as one of the Santa Fe Living Treasures recipients got them nowhere.

"Hell, no," Herter would tell them. "Once you're a Living Treasure, the next thing you know, you're a dead treasure."

Herter is gone, but her spirit remains, Baca said, because the many people she befriended and organizations she helped found and support still exist.

"She continues to live on for the city," Baca said.