With Susan Hankins, you weren’t a stranger very long.
Whether it was through the chamber, senior center, railway museum or anywhere else, she possessed an innate ability for forming close bonds with anyone and everyone — making them feel like the most special person in the room.
She led a life of service that spanned roughly three decades in the Snoqualmie Valley and her passion for improving the lives of those around her was infectious.
Hankins — described by those who knew her best as a warm, gracious, salt-of-the-earth type — died Feb. 14 at the age of 81, but her impact on the Valley and her bond with its residents will be remembered long after.
“Like most people who are very impactful, you didn’t necessarily see what she was doing to make things better, but you definitely felt it,” said Richard Anderson, executive director of the Northwest Railway Museum and a close friend of Hankins.
“Our community could use a lot more people like Susan.”
Hankins was born in Renton to Ronald and Hazel Medina, and raised in Medina. She attended college in California, but returned to Bellevue to start her career and family. That family eventually included three sons, Mike, Ron and Brad.
Mike Castle, Hankins’ oldest, recalls his mom as someone who would make friends even in the check-out line of a grocery store and in a short period of time would know where you grew up and what your parents were like.
Hankins was a supportive mom who never missed her kids’ sports games – even as a single-mother who at times worked two jobs to support the boys.
“We always had new cleats for soccer season and new gloves for baseball season and never missed out on what the other kids got,” he said. “We had no idea till we were older that we were struggling financially.”
She also at times played the role of both mom and dad, Castle said.
“I remember my mom trying to be a mom and a dad and trying to take my brother and I camping by herself and it was a disaster,” he said. “It took us forever to figure out how to put the tent up and it started to pour down rain and we ended up sleeping in the back of the station wagon.”
While working 20 plus years at Rocket Research in Redmond, Hankins met Castle’s step-dad, Barry. The two were married for 47 years and built their North Bend home together in 1982 — where they would live for the rest of her life.
Upon retirement, Hankins said in a previous Valley Record article that “she didn’t know anybody” in the Valley — so she got involved.
“I had to go over to Moses Lake for a project for a year and she decided to get involved in the community,” Mr. Hankins said. “And did she get involved in the community.”
Hankins rode her bike everyday to what’s now Black Dog in Snoqualmie, and met people active in the community and began volunteering for the SnoValley Chamber of Commerce. By 1990, she became the first paid executive director in the chamber’s history, holding the position for 10 years
In 1995, she met Anderson and asked him to join the chamber’s board. Beginning in 2000, Hankins would spend years on the museum’s board, eventually becoming its president. When she recently became too sick to attend meetings, she was awarded the title of president emeritus.
Anderson remembers Hankins as someone you could talk to about anything and for her ability to compromise and bring people together. He said she gave great advice to him and mentored many of the young women who worked at the museum.
“She was even known to tell off well placed local officials when they were being unusually stubborn,” Anderson said. “With the relationships she had in the community, she could get away with behaving that way when it was necessary.”
Her ability to politely lecture people was almost her superpower, Mr. Hankins said.
“She had this unique way of lecturing anyone and them not taking it as a lecture,” he said. “In the third visit with someone she would end up telling them how to raise their children and I never heard people getting upset.”
Former Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson likes to tell the story of asking Hankins for financial support in a 2016 campaign effort for a state House position.
After years as a nonpartisan mayor, Larson registered as a Democrat, and called Hankins, a Republican, for support.
“She said something along the lines of ‘dammit, but you’re a Democrat,’” Larson said. “I said yeah, but you love me Susan, and she said ‘I do. Well dammit I have to support you.’”
For Larson, that story encapsulates who Hankins was.
“She was a fairly strong conservative Republican, but that never got in the way of her being warm or interacting with anybody,” he said. “Her loyalties were always first to her community and the people.”
Hankins also spent decades serving on the board of the Mount Si Senior Center, touching every aspect of the organization including Snoqualmie Valley Transit and apartments run by the center.
“She had a way of drawing you in and she knew absolutely everyone in the Valley,” said Susan Kingsbury-Comeau, executive director of the center who met Susan seven year ago. “We are a bigger, better organization serving more seniors because of her.”
For Kingsbury-Comeau, she hangs on to the simple and humorous way Hankins said the phrase, “oh brother,” whenever she was presented with a challenge or issue.
“It’s an everything memory,” she said. “I can hear it, I can see it, I can feel it.”
She also remembers the way Hankins made everyone in the room feel like the most special person there.
“I talked to her four times a week, checked in with her on weekends and she had that kind of relationship with everyone,” she said. “I always thought I was the most special, and it dawns on me now, [it was] me and everyone else.”
In their last phone call together, Hankins told Kingsbury-Comeau that she had gotten a hold of someone they had been trying to reach and she should expect a phone call — one came five minutes later.
Kingsbury-Comeau said this happened often when she presented a challenge to Hankins, who always knew exactly who to speak with. Kingsbury-Comeau would get a call usually within five minutes of Hankins getting involved.
“They would say ‘I just got off the phone with Susan, and I guess I owe you a phone call,’” she said. “That was Susan, always connecting people.”
One way to quantify Hankins’ impact is through the size of her celebration of life memorial, which had to be move to a church in Bellevue because there are none big enough in the Valley to house all those wanting to come.
Even into her final years, when she dealt with pain from a 2011 back surgery and had to use a walker, it never slowed her down. Even during a five month long stint at the hospital she never complained once, Mr. Hankins said.
“When people would ask her ‘Susan, how do you do this’ she would say ‘I can tell you people who have it worse than I do,’” he said. “That always stuck with me.”
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to either the Northwest Railway Museum or Mount Si Senior Center.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to add additional information.