Susan McIntosh Housel ‘links’ past and present in service to others

Books in a row

In her daily life and work Susan McIntosh Housel, a 1973 Elementary Education grad, is a prime example of service to others. She serves her church, municipal, and university communities in a variety of ways. Following nearly 30 years as an elementary teacher in four separate school districts, Housel continues to serve the College of Education as the executive committee chair of the National Alumni Council (NAC). But it is her understanding of relationships—or “links,” as she prefers to call them—that makes her special.

“Focusing on a favorite verse of scripture, Colossians 3:17, …whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus… my morning prayer asks God to help me to look, to listen, to learn, to love, and to live,” Housel said. “As simple as those things sound, the distractions of our world make it hard to pay attention and live in the moment. So that is my daily goal, to do these seemingly simple things, seeking to serve in whatever ways are presented.”

Susan Housel

Housel’s teaching career led her to schools in Dothan, Homewood, and Opelika before finally coming home to Auburn and Wrights Mill Road Elementary in 1987. In her nearly 15 years at that school, Housel was engaged in multiple extracurricular and leadership activities, and was named the school, city, and district teacher of the year. Despite her many accolades, it is what went on inside the classroom every day that made her work meaningful.

“When I was an undergraduate at Auburn, becoming a school teacher was one of the few options that seemed available,” she said. “Things have changed so much for women now, and the College of Education has progressed along with these expanding roles. When I graduated I had only two in-classroom experiences as a student teacher before starting work as a professional. That is not enough. Our graduates are so much better prepared today. And I can tell you that principals and superintendents around the state and region know that and want to hire Auburn graduates. They are ready to lead on their first day in the classroom.”

Housel saw quickly that although each school was different, the needs of young learners remained the same.

“To me, service starts with really listening to understand what others need,” she said. “Needs may be physical or emotional. Needs may be for daily security or for academic challenge. Having a need is not necessarily the same as being needy. Service means being responsive to needs, whatever they may be.”

To me, service starts with really listening to understand what others need. Needs may be physical or emotional. Needs may be for daily security or for academic challenge. Having a need is not necessarily the same as being needy. Service means being responsive to needs, whatever they may be.

Ellyn Hix, a board member and leader with the after-school outreach ministry Our House, remembers Housel telling her about a time when one of her students, admittedly from a privileged family, excitedly told the class about an anticipated spring break trip her family was planning.

“Susan told me that another student, one with no plans, knew that for her, spring break meant missing some meals and losing the security of school structure,” Hix recalled. “The student’s behavior became disruptive. And then Susan had similar experiences the next school year. Though it took her a while to understand, looking and listening led to some important learning when she eventually recognized that the disruptive behavior came from fear and insecurity. Both students needed to be seen and heard, and both needed to be responded to with respect and love.”

Hix said that she remembers these lessons when moving toward school breaks with her own students at Our House.

Housel’s takeaway was that all students share those same needs.

“When students entered my classroom, they found a child-centered space, their space, planned for their learning experiences,” Housel said. “They developed relationships with each other and with me, seeing me as a whole person, and not only as an authority figure. Relationships develop through caring; caring begins with listening. Respect the individuals who enter the classroom, bringing what can be called their ‘lived experience,’ including differences in interests, strengths, and learning styles. The College of Education does an exceptional job of preparing our graduates to acknowledge differences and to teach effectively. Learning this as undergraduates and applying it on a daily basis is the reason our graduates are in such high demand.”

Recognizing contrasting life circumstances such as wealth and poverty, stability and insecurity, led Housel to support various backpack and food drive efforts, along with programs like Food Pantry, Our House, and Habitat for Humanity. And in her purposeful, post-retirement life, Housel saw many threads come together to create what she calls “links.” This form of living to serve others is, for her, what makes life most meaningful.

“My concept of the ‘link’ is that we each have a part, a link, that connects people and events from the past to people and events in the future,” Housel explained. “Recognize and acknowledge the people and experiences that have impacted your life. Know that what you do can and does influence others — some lives you will see, some you will not. One great example came from the Campus Club here at Auburn.”

Connecting people through the ages with books

Housel has been the Campus Club president for three consecutive terms, and also chairs a highly active book club subset of the same group. In the fall of 2005, book club members reflected on the extreme losses caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The group decided to collect new children’s books, but were unsure how or where to deliver them. One member quietly raised her hand and said she could do it.

“Sue’s grandchildren were in New Orleans, attending a makeshift substitute school, and she always spent Christmas with them. We collected several boxes of new books and sent them with Sue. Imagine the feelings that were part of selecting and sending those books! Though we certainly could not return what had been lost in the storm, and most of us could not even imagine the feelings of those receiving the books, we were able to be a link between memories of the past and hope for the future.”

Illustration of two adults with a box of books

For the next two years, Housel’s brother delivered similar boxes of books to storm-ravaged Gulfport, Mississippi. The effort gained strength.

“Book club members soon invited the entire Campus Club membership to bring new, unwrapped books to our annual holiday luncheon,” Housel said. “We have twice sent boxes of books to a school in Enterprise following a tornado there. Thankfully not every donation is in response to disaster. We have donated to various libraries and the elementary schools in Notasulga and Loachapoka. We’ve donated books to Toys for Tots and gathered books for older children at the Lee County Development Center. From our love of reading came a service opportunity, one that let us sometimes replace lost treasures and offer new ones while encouraging young readers.”

Last year, when Hurricane Michael brought havoc and destruction to the northwest Florida coast, especially in and around Panama City, members explored ways to respond. Two Campus Club members had connections there and volunteered to deliver books. In Housel’s words, “God once again connected the dots.”

“Becky Merkle Scarborough is a 1977 COE grad,” Housel continued. “She had been the supervising teacher for Caroline Cox Brantley, an intern who later became a school teacher in the Panhandle. The two had stayed in close touch, but their bond deepened as Caroline shared with her mentor how she was trying to comfort, settle, and teach her students following the near-complete disruption of their lives and community.”

To make a long story short, Scarborough and Campus Club member and AU grad Dr. Michelle Reed loaded more than 300 children’s books into their cars and made the delivery to a school recommended by Brantley, a combination school housing students from two damaged schools near Panama City.

“So now Becky and Caroline are linked through Auburn, through the College of Education, and through their commitment to the health and welfare of children. Our club members are linked to teachers and schools and children we may never know through Auburn, through a love of reading, and through our shared belief in the transformative power of education. As we continue to use our heads, our hands, and our hearts, I pray that God will continue to be the link that connects us to everything that we can do for each other.”

Service to the college

“An especially meaningful link for me has been made between establishing a scholarship honoring my grandfather and meeting the recipients who are current education majors. Every time this happens I see us linking three or more generations.”

Housel’s links go on and on. When she came to the NAC, she knew she would be working with scholars and practitioners she had respected throughout her career in education. What began with her being in awe of these leaders developed into warm and lasting friendships. Through her own leadership roles she is now passing that on to new generations of graduates.

Susan Housel and Dean Whitford

“Leadership offers opportunities for service, both as an individual and as part of a group. An individual may serve through mentoring, by creating a project, and certainly by generating interest and encouraging participation. Group service provides strength in numbers: more ideas generated, broader project awareness communicated, and larger collections made, whether food, books, or funds for scholarships.”

In her time on the NAC, Housel has been instrumental in developing the mini-grant program that has awarded service-learning funds to students and professors for the past several years, including the counseling podcast series featured on page 14 of this issue of Keystone. College of Education Dean Betty Lou Whitford, who has worked with scores of NAC members, remarked that Housel not only brings attention and detail to her high-quality work as the council’s leader, but also an attitude of caring and sincerity. This view is shared by many.

I feel fortunate and blessed that through the College of Education I not only gained a career, but a life. A desire to serve others is one of the most natural things in the world when you come from a place like Auburn. I thank God for that every day.

“Everyone who has ever been a part of Auburn understands how special this place is, and comes away with links that last a lifetime,” Housel concluded. “I feel fortunate and blessed that through the College of Education I not only gained a career, but a life. A desire to serve others is one of the most natural things in the world when you come from a place like Auburn. I thank God for that every day.”

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