Sour named Sewickley Herald Woman of the Year for helping community thrive
Susan Ratcliffe Sour's career and volunteer journeys might best be summed up in one phrase: wanting others to thrive.
The Sewickley Heights woman has spent years as an educator, helping middle- and high-school kids grow, and has volunteered her time helping Sewickley Valley institutions grow, while also trying to create welcoming environments, including through her gardening efforts.
“I want kids to be in a place that's happy and that makes them feel good, where they have a chance to exercise their talents, their creativity (and) to thrive,” said Sour, who has been named the Sewickley Herald Woman of the Year for 2015. “That's what I always tried to do as a principal and that's what I continue to try to do through gardening.”
Sour, 75, regularly tends to gardens at Sewickley Academy, where she continues to work in the school's alumni relations office, and also at the Old Sewickley Post Office, where she serves as president of the board of the building, which houses Sweetwater Center for the Arts and the Sewickley Valley Historical Society.
Gardening, Sour says, is “part of a philosophy … of trying to provide an environment for people to enjoy either alone or with each other.”
When not tending to gardens at those institutions, Sour works on gardens at her family's Rockledge Farm in Sewickley Heights.
She continues those efforts with her sister, Missy Zimmerman, seven months out of the year with My Mother's Garden — a small cut flower business the two operate “partly as a public service.”
For a small fee, the pair offer a mason jar full of flowers and vegetables on a weekly basis to women in the community.
“A lot of them are women who used to have big gardens of their own and now live in Linden Place … or no longer have the physical capability to do their own gardens,” Sour said. “We don't make any money at all. But it keeps the farm going and it brightens somebody's day — I hope.”
As the current vice president of the nonprofit Union Aid Society, she credits other volunteers for helping the organization, which aims to serve those in need among Sewickley Valley communities through financial and food assistance, scholarships and housing.
“I was so pleased to be invited to be on the board of Union Aid because I've always thought that they do wonderful and important work that nobody else does,” Sour said. “I give so much credit to the women who have come before who made that happen.”
She has led significant milestones at two Sewickley Valley institutions — the 100th anniversary of the Old Sewickley Post Office in 2012 and the 175th anniversary of Sewickley Academy in 2012-13 — and this year is helping to organize the 50th anniversary of the academy's senior school.
“That's a function of being in the right place at the right time — and being old,” Sour joked. “If you're talking history, I've got it.”
She holds these volunteer positions while maintaining her family's farm and continuing to work in the academy's alumni relations office.
“I always wanted to live a meaningful life. I always wanted to live a life that hopefully made a contribution in some way, shape or form. Hopefully I've done that.”
What's kept Sour — who first moved to the Sewickley Valley with her family in 1949 and attended several schools early on, including Sewickley Academy, before attending boarding school — actively involved?
“I was raised that those to whom much is given much is expected,” she said. “If you have been blessed with opportunities like a superior education, and if you have time and talent ... then do what you can to make the world a better place for somebody. That's an ethic that's been lifelong. I got it from my mother and grandmothers.”
Friends and colleagues say Sour is dedicated to her work.
“Susan's unselfish service to the Sewickley Valley community has been a lifelong hallmark,” Tom Hartley, who has served with Sour on the Old Sewickley Post Office board, and Sewickley Academy Head of School Kolia O'Connor wrote in a joint letter to the Herald. “Because of her many and varied connections with so many different people in our community, Susan helps illuminate the many ways in which the history of Sewickley Academy is inextricably bound up with the history of our town.
“As a member of the Academy's Secret Garden Committee and as an amazing gardener in her own right, Susan has helped to establish and nurture the connections between local garden clubs and local gardeners, fostering just the sort of connections that make our community the robust and dynamic one that it is.”
Karen Muse agreed.
“I have known Susie for over 50 years and she has never ceased to amaze me with her skill, knowledge and talents both academic and social ... or surrounded by nature on her beloved Rockledge Farm,” Muse said.
Sour credits the generations of Sewickley Valley residents who built this community and its organizations as a reason for the continued emphasis of a thriving community.
“It's a real community because it has the village as its base, compared to other suburbs — and I've lived in other suburbs where there's no central unifying place,” she said.
“It's also united by its history. Even though we have people who come and go, many of those who come see there is a history, appreciate it and then do their part to maintain it through the organizations we have. Those organizations evolve thanks to the time and talents of those people in charge at the moment. But the foundations of what it means to live in this community continue through.
“You feel like you're part of something that's bigger than yourself when you live in this valley.”
Bobby Cherry is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.