Sweet Susal Stebbins

Features Issue 210 Jul, 2018
Text by Dinesh Rai

Most people will remember Susal Stebbins as one of those sweet persons who would never say anything to upset you. Always polite and attentive to what you were saying, she was a soft spoken person who never raised her voice. To put it simply, she was a very nice person who seemed to get along with everyone.

I may have met Susal at Mani Lama’s in Lazimpat, while she was studying photography under the seasoned photographer. But I got the opportunity to get to know her better when she was leaving her job as editor of ECS and I was about to step into her shoes. During the transition period, she brought me up to speed on where the magazine was at. We discussed future articles and the style that she had maintained. I guess it was her interest in photography that had brought Tom Kelly’s photographs to her attention and his portrait of a sadhu was about to appear on the cover of ECS with a photo feature inside, followed by a photo spread by Jill Gocher (yes, ‘Jill with the Hasselblad’). It was the February issue of 2004 and I had just quit Boss magazine to join ECS. It was her last issue as she was preparing to leave Nepal soon.

I remember Susal telling me, “I changed my name from Susan to Sujal, to avoid confusion as our previous editor was Susan Fowlds.” She decided to go by the name Sujal Jane Dunipace at ECS. However, Sujal was too difficult and unfamiliar a name for expatriates to pronounce, so she was generally known to everyone as Susal and that’s the name that stuck.

Susan Leigh Stebbins was born in Minneapolis, Minn., on 5th August 1958, to Robert E. Stebbins and K. Ann Stebbins. She attended Model High School in Richmond from where she graduated and received a BA in Music Performance from the St. Louis (MO) Conservatory of Music. Oboe was the instrument of her choice, a musical instrument that is not heard too often. She had also completed her MA from the School for International Training in Conflict Management and International Education. Susal and I had much in common; we were both into music and photography. We had also both become editors and that brought us close.
She worked for social change organizations as a teacher, lobbyist, fundraiser, grant writer and editor, both in the U.S. and in Nepal.

After returning to the U.S., Susal got married to William Collins and seemed happy. I would see her photos with him on Facebook with that engaging smile. However, she was diagnosed with a serious illness which was to change her life abruptly. She was already into Buddhist philosophy and the spiritual aspects of life and this new development pushed her further into it. She always maintained a close friendship with Nepali people living in the U.S., especially among Buddhists, and talked about it when she visited Nepal. She believed in karma and found meaning in the way she had come across certain Nepalis back home and thought they were destined to meet; she thought they had a part to play in her life. 

Susal spent her final years teaching intercultural communication at the School for International Training (Brattleboro, Vt.) and Mindfulness at Hampshire College (Amherst, Mass.). She had fully embraced Buddhism. She visited Nepal before she fell ill and the last time we met was in New Orleans Café & Bar in Thamel where we had dinner. Dinner time was filled with an interesting conversation about life in general and her philosophy. She also talked fondly of the Nepali people living in America whom she had befriended and met as often as possible. I updated her on friends we had in common and discussed the usual problems we face in our everyday lives in Nepal. She seemed to be doing alright back in the States, leading an active life, inspiring others. Reading about her in publications in the U.S. one gathers how much she was contributing to other people’s lives, because she cared for other people. She helped those in need, and in Nepal she was focused on the marginalized people of the Terai.

Susal died on 15th July 2016, in Dummerston, Vermont after a year-long struggle with a debilitating illness. She was 57 and is survived by her husband, William Collins; her mother, K. Ann Stebbins and two sisters. I came to know her only after she had decided to leave Nepal, but we had so much in common that we bonded instantly and shared ideas like old friends. The image that comes to mind when I think of her is of a relaxed Susal, sitting at the opposite end of the small table at New Orleans Café, sipping on a milkshake, looking very calm. I will always remember her smile; it was so warm and loving. It was a smile that said “I care for you.”

Mani Lama remembers: Susal came to me to study photography for one semester. She was a very friendly person and was always helping people. She spent a lot of time helping people from the Gandharva community who are known for their profession as gaines, the traveling minstrels. She was so dedicated that they accepted her in their community as one of them. She took many of them to the U.S. and even from there she supported those living in Nepal.

She will be missed and remembered always.