For some, Suzanne Ryan is the North Berkeley Senior Center.
When Ryan stepped down from her position as the center’s director Tuesday, more than 200 seniors turned up to shake her hand, hug her, share stories or simply take part in the celebration that marked 32 years of her service to Berkeley’s elderly and disabled.
As the short, gray-haired, blue-sweater-clad figure made her rounds inside the building’s Main Room, it was easy to spot why she was the most beloved of all the seniors there.
“Suzanne, don’t leave us,” exclaimed Catherine Willis, 73, who serves lunch to seniors at the center. “Oh, I am going to cry ... She’s just wonderful.”
And she has always been available, as a hundred other testimonials proved during the course of the party.
The old and the feeble, the forgotten and the lonely—Ryan took them all under her wing one by one and created a multiracial, multicultural second home for all.
“And believe me, with these seniors it’s not easy,” said Elizabeth Snowden, the center’s former treasurer. “But Suzanne has a rare quality. She can hold everyone together. One time two of the men here were physically fighting with each other. She was able to tear them apart. She has a kind of sweetness that’s special.”
A native of Louisville, Ky., Ryan moved to Pasadena after attending the University of Wisconsin.
“I was 22 at that time,” she said. “And wanted to explore different options. While working for the YWCA in Pasadena, I saw that the City of Berkeley had an ad for the director of the North Berkeley Senior Center in the Health and Human Services Department.”
Ryan began her new job from the much smaller confines of the Lutheran Church at 1847 University Ave. Back then, her office was a hallway.
“I got to work with the architect who designed the new North Berkeley Senior Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Hearst,” she said. “Never in a million years did I think that the city would build three senior centers—North, South and West. For this building, we had to keep in mind accessibility ... especially hand rails for the disabled,” she said, hugging a man in a wheelchair.
Despite the abundance of space at 1901 Hearst Ave., problems such as a shortage of parking space and deferred maintenance continue to plague its regulars.
Ryan’s term at the senior center did not come without its share of problems. There were building and people problems, the latter often solved with the help of the city’s mental health services.
During the last three decades, Ryan created innovative programs for seniors—including the French and the Chinese clubs—and turned it into a thriving place of comfort.
“She not only has a good brain but also the biggest heart,” said Allen Stross, a nonagenarian. “Recipes, stories, advice, she has given me everything.”
Fred Medrano from the city’s Health and Human Services Department presented Ryan with a proclamation for being an ambassador and an advocate for seniors.
“There have been lots of challenges and she solved them all with a lot of hard work,” he said. “When I think of the North Berkeley Senior Center, I can’t separate Suzanne from the place. When I think of what she stands for, acts of kindness and the rights, needs and aspirations for our elderly community, it’s just amazing.”
Giving up what she loved doing was not easy for Ryan, but she admitted she was ready.
“There’s never been one day that’s been boring at the center,” Ryan said. “But I am 60, and I need to do something else,” she said. “I am going to do what all these happy people are doing ... I will be going to a senior center, but it will probably be the one in Albany. I don’t want people here to think that I am watching behind their shoulder.”