It was 10 years ago this month.
What started out as an ordinary Monday morning in the Loudoun County took a sudden, terrible turn.
A little after nine o’clock, County Administrator Kirby Bowers stepped into my office, his face ashen. The Director of had just informed him of an auto accident that had occurred that morning on Route 7, between Round Hill and Purcellville.
My good friend and co-worker, Susan Farmer, had struck a deer on her way to work, and she was seriously injured.
“She’ll be O.K., right?” I asked reflexively. But Kirby didn’t have an answer for that.
I had known Susan for over a decade, and our paths had crossed many times. Not long after I had been hired as Loudoun County’s first Public Information Officer, Susan became the first to fill a similar position with the .
A former reporter with the , she was bright, friendly and energetic, a good writer with a flair for graphic design – perfectly suited for her job.
For years we were counterparts, solo PIOs who wore many hats, navigating many of the same pitfalls in working with elected officials, the media and public agencies. It was always helpful to compare notes with her and, occasionally, to commiserate.
She became an officer of a new, national professional association, the City-County Communications and Marketing Association (3CMA), and persuaded me to join. I later served 3CMA as an officer, too, and we worked together several years as contest judges.
I also got to know Susan’s husband, Tim Farmer, who at that time was editor of the Eastern Loudoun Times. I recall enjoying a few beers with Tim at a brewpub in the Pacific Northwest, when both Susan and I were attending a 3CMA conference.
When I was enrolled in the Leadership Loudoun program, one of our class exercises was to subject ourselves to a media interview. Tim played the role of a news photographer, repeatedly flashing his camera in my eyes as I tried to answer a series of rapid-fire questions shot at me by a reporter.
Susan enrolled in Leadership Loudoun the next year, and we later served together on that organization’s Board of Directors.
We also collaborated on several projects that involved both the county and the town, including jointly producing a newsletter on the courts renovation and expansion project.
In 2000, a new position opened up in my office for someone to oversee the county’s cable TV franchises. Somehow I was able to entice Susan to leave her job at the town and come to work with me. I later said that it was like working up the nerve to ask the prettiest girl in the room to dance, and being surprised when she says “yes.”
She was so versatile and talented that before long she was also hosting our long-running cable program, “Inside Loudoun County,” and editing the county employee newsletter. She had a way of making prose and publications sparkle.
After Kirby left my office that day in October 2001, I learned that Susan had been flown to Fairfax Hospital. My co-worker Marilyn Dunnill and I immediately left for the hospital, arriving before Tim, who had to drive there from Clarke County.
We were met by a hospital social worker – not an encouraging sign, I thought. For hours, Marilyn and I sat in a small room with Tim, trying to think of comforting words to say to him, but often letting long minutes go by, marked only by the ticking of the clock on the wall. We stayed with Tim until Susan’s parents and sister arrived from Pennsylvania, then quietly slipped away.
It was one of the saddest days of my life, and I can only imagine the heartbreak her family felt that day.
Susan had been driving on Route 7 when a vehicle in front of her hit a deer – a fully grown buck – throwing it into the air. When it came down, it crashed through Susan’s windshield, and she suffered a severe head injury.
Susan lived through the night but died the next day, October 23. She was 36 years old. Later, town officials planted a tree in her memory on the grounds of the .
I think about Susan often, especially every October. It is October again, and Loudoun County is overrun with deer. Please watch out for them.
While Susan couldn’t have done anything to avoid her accident, we can still learn some lessons from her bad fortune.
We need to remain vigilant while driving on the highway, because deer are so unpredictable. Slow down a little, and don’t forget to scan the sides of the road.
Consider signing up to be an organ donor, if you are able to. Susan did, and her generous spirit helped give life to others.
And remember to treasure every day.