Claremonter honored for distinctive contributions

Not only is Sue Schenk’s green thumb aiding in her noted work preserving Claremont’s urban forest and open space, it’s also gaining her attention beyond the lush borders of the City of Trees.

Ms. Schenk was recognized earlier this month as one of Congresswoman Judy Chu’s Women of Distinction, honoring women who have contributed to the betterment of the newly designated 25th Congressional District. Ms. Schenk, whose contributions in Claremont are almost as tall and sweeping as the vines that grow in her prized outdoor garden, certainly fits the bill worthy of distinction, asserts Mayor Opanyi Nasiali.

“She has been very active in the community and I thought it deserved recognition beyond local recognition,” said Mr. Nasiali, who nominated Ms. Schenk for the honor.

Ms. Schenk had been at it long before the recognition came. Her local activism has grown out of 2 passions, the first being her love for her children. A dutiful mother, Ms. Schenk spent many years with her mind swirling with craft ideas and cookie order forms as troop leader for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She also advocated for the Claremont Unified School District to provide an after-school daycare program at all the elementary schools.  As a working mom, day care was essential and when the Schenks arrived in Claremont in 1982 there was no such program at her daughters’ school, Sycamore Elementary.

“This was something that shouldn’t be used as a magnet, but that should be available to all working women,” Ms. Schenk explained.

Ms. Schenk’s second passion, her love of nature, compels her to work to preserve the city’s natural spaces. As a botany professor, she works everyday to inspire the curiosities of her students while also volunteering with Sustainable Claremont and other local groups dedicated to the environment.

Ms. Schenk first developed her green thumb tending to the family vegetable garden as a young girl. She was an outdoor girl through-and-through and found endless amusement in a vacant lot behind her childhood home in Norwalk.

“It was just a scruffy lot, but there were a lot of grasses and wildflowers and you could watch the different insects going around. I always enjoyed it,” she said. “People just seem to be born with a preference for different things and plants is something I’ve always really liked.”

As she went on to college and postgraduate studies, her love for plants turned into a living as she pursued a career in botany. She didn’t always have the most cush quarters, but she always found space for her plants. Even in her third story flat in London, a plethora of perennials could be found nestled on her balcony along with a 4-foot avocado tree beside her front door.

Her love for nature took on an even deeper importance in the late 1990s as she fought to preserve the Claremont Colleges’ Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station from proposed development.  Her nonprofit support group was instrumental in keeping the station intact. It remains an important part of Claremont today.

“Having a field station so close to the colleges is really unusual…and it’s just extremely important to giving a quality education to the undergraduates,” Ms. Schenk expressed. “There are so many other ways to address building issues, but there is no other way to address having a natural outdoor laboratory issue. Once it’s gone, it’s gone and the opportunity won’t be there anymore for our students.”

The field station is not only instrumental for the students, but for the Claremont community as a whole, Ms. Schenk emphasized.

“When I was a kid there seemed to be many more opportunities to go out and engage with nature. As time has gone on those seem to be decreasing,” she recognized. “There are a lot of kids who come up to the field station who have never been to a natural area and they don’t know anything about how the plants and animals interact. [The field station] is at least one place where some of those problems can be addressed.

“I just think natural areas ought to be preserved whenever you can do it,” she added.

With that in mind, her work to preserve open space has gone far beyond the field station to include work as the League of Women Voters’ natural resources chair, and as board member and co-founder for Sustainable Claremont, a grassroots group dedicated to keeping Claremont green. Through her work with the Friends of the Field Station, she realized the city did not have a clear understanding of the value of natural open spaces. So when it came to the general plan’s revision, Ms. Schenk was quick to volunteer. She was at the helm again when it came to developing a sustainability plan for the city, as well as starting the grassroots group that would become Sustainable Claremont. She furthers her advocacy today as president of Sustainable Claremont’s garden club.

“Susan’s unrelenting commitment to sustainability and to building a greener community is truly inspirational,” Congresswoman Chu said. “Susan is a leader in promoting sustainability and protecting Claremont’s unique environment, both for residents today and for generations still to come.”

But while some may consider it inspirational, Ms. Schenk merely considers it a part of our daily duty. “It’s part of our responsibility,” Ms. Schenk said. “We should be good stewards as much as possible.”

—Beth Hartnett


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