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It is with ineffable sadness we mourn the passing of Susan Cowell.
Born Tuesday June 3, 1952. Tuesday’s child is full of grace. Sue lived with Alzheimer’s for the past 12 years with grace: the way she lived her life. She died peacefully at the Friendly Home October 28 with her beloved partner, Marta Maletzke, by her side.
She was born in Queens, NY and grew up in Hicksville, NY with parents Paul and Martha, brother Paul and sister Bonnie. She enjoyed a large extended family in the area.
She graduated cum laude at SUNY New Paltz with a BS degree in Psychology in 1974 and an MS in Nursing at Pace University in 1977. After graduation she moved to Rochester to accept a Nurse Practitioner position with Student Health Services at the University of Rochester.
Sue has been curious and socially engaged from the time she could walk and talk. Her father had a newsstand at the Wantagh, NY train station. She grew up reading the news and debating current affairs. Since coming to Rochester in 1977 she has been involved in political, medical, social and economic activism.
We wish to thank Evelyn Bailey and Susan David for their work preserving Sue’s archives. Also to thank friends Barb, Christy and Kim B. for regularly visiting Sue at the Friendly Home for the past 5 years. Also to thank the caring staff at the Friendly Home.
Please honor Sue with a contribution to the Susan A. Cowell Scholarship Fund at the Rochester Area Community Foundation.
Family and friends are invited to call on WEDNESDAY, November 8th, from 2-4 PM at Miller Funeral and Cremation Services (3325 Winton Rd S). Interment at Mt. Hope Cemetery.
The Shoulders of A Giant: Sue Cowell
Unparalleled Leadership Spanning Three Decades
Sue was in the forefront of our community’s struggle for equality and justice. She modestly worked behind the scenes and avoided the limelight. Her service began many years ago starting with feminist activism in the 1970s, as a member of Rochester Women Against Violence Against Women, organizers of the first Take Back the Night marches. During the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s Sue focused on building, supporting, and encouraging women’s cultural and political expression locally. Her cultural achievements include: being a founding member of the Rochester Women’s Community Chorus in 1978; Rising Arts providing exhibition space for local women artists at a storefront on Monroe Ave; Rising Productions and the Upstate New York Women’s Production Network bringing women performers and plays by women to the area which strived to strengthen, organize, and unify the women’s community. Sue co-produced the documentary films “The Riverview: A Lesbian Place” and “Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars”. Many are unaware of her ‘Softball Hall of Fame’ status when her batting average on Paul’s Grocery Softball Team soared to 700.
In 1977, Sue purchased a large double house on the corner of Harper and Wilmer St. a block off Monroe Ave. With four bedrooms in each unit, it was a home for many women in Rochester for short and long periods of time. Sue’s house was a bed of hotbed of political, social, cultural and medical activism. Late in 1981, Sue called a few prominent members of the Rochester gay community to a meeting on her front porch to talk about GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) – HIV/AIDS. This meeting began Rochester’s response to the AIDS Crisis. In 1983, Sue cofounded the Rochester Area Task Force on AIDS and AIDS Rochester, two more beginnings that would become part of Sue Cowell’s legacy.
A registered nurse by profession, she was a co-founder of AIDS Rochester in 1983, which began as an ad hoc committee of several local gay activists including Alan Davidson, Tim Sally, and Tim Tompkins. Sue, a founding member of the Rochester Area Task Force on AIDS in 1983, was, according to Gary English, one of four concerned individuals who in 1997 laid the foundation for the establishment of what we today call The MOCHA Center, now a part of Trillium. Gary English recognized Sue on the occasion of receiving the Shoulders To Stand On Triangle Lifetime Achievement Award on May 2, 2015, saying “Sue provided the bridge to the larger white LGBT community that supported MOCHA in its infancy.”
In 1982, Sue worked with Dr. Tom Rush in co-founding the first Rochester AIDS Screening Clinic. Dr. Bill Valenti, co-founder of AIDS Rochester, said about the first study on AIDS in the American College Health Association Journal in 1985 authored by Sue and Dr. Rush, “The best part about this is that Sue was seeking answers before we even knew what the questions were…. This study was one of the first risk behavior studies in gay men done anywhere on the planet!” Sue worked for the University of Rochester Health Services 1977 – 1988, Monroe County Health Department as AIDS coordinator 1988 – 1998, and Trillium Health 2013 – 2014 as a Project Manager.
In political organizing work, Sue made her mark and made history. Sue has been both President of the Gay Alliance board three times and Executive Director 2009 – 2012. Sue worked with the local Democratic Party. She was a delegate to two national Democratic Conventions – 1996 and 2000 – representing the LGBT community and AFSME-CSEA. Sue was the Democratic Party District leader for Rochester, 23rd LD and a committee member from 1985 – 1990. Sue worked as paid staff on Louise Slaughter’s first campaign and her last campaign. Sue was campaign manager for Tim Mains’ first race for City Council and Susan John’s for NYS Assembly. She volunteered on many other campaigns including Bill Pritchard and Matt Haag’s run for City Council. Sue helped change the face of politics in New York State and ensured the lesbian and gay community a seat at the table.
Sue’s achievements during her tenure as the Empire State Pride agenda board co-chair from 1993 – 1998, included the opening of the Empire State Pride Agenda Rochester office, and established it as the upstate New York focus of lesbian and gay political activity. Her legacy includes milestone Pride Agenda achievements at local and state levels during each year of her tenure. In June 1994, ESPA along with the New York City chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, produced a full-page advertisement in The New York Times to counteract the “religious right” portrayal of us as “a scary specter”. More than 1,000 gay and lesbian New Yorkers came out about their non-heterosexuality. Also in 1994, ESPA joined a network of liberal and progressive groups to counteract the Christian Right’s “stealth strategy” of getting people elected to local school boards by “hiding their opposition to critical thinking, bilingual programs, multicultural education, and ultimately to public schooling itself”. In 1996, ESPA joined the Freedom to Marry Coalition (Marriage Project). In 1997, ESPA helped educate advocates on how to push for hate-crimes legislation. In 1998, ESPA launched “Pride in the Pulpit”, a program to combat the use of religion to advance anti-LGBT amendments and legislation. Sue combined a keen intellect with a piercing political acumen, unbridled energy with enthusiasm, and professionalism with focus.
From 1998 – 2008 Sue was the co-owner and day to day operations manager of Ace Mailing. In 2015, the Gay Alliance held a Sue Cowell Community Recognition Reception to celebrate Sue’s accomplishments. Sue was awarded the Shoulders to Stand On Triangle Award for her unparalleled contributions and achievements in the AIDS crisis, in politics, in business, as a social activist and as a medical professional which made a difference in the lives of so many, and as someone who stands in our midst as a passionate, caring, woman who embraced change that continues to create a more just, equal and welcoming community for all.
Sue was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s and retired in 2015. The shoulders of this giant laid a strong foundation that brings us closer to a future of equality and justice for all, regardless of the arena.