The Sun Also Sets

Activist / artist / teacher / political candidate Susan Lee Solar is remembered by friends.

Longtime local activist Susan Lee Solar died Feb. 13. Solar crusaded for various peace and justice causes, and in 1998 ran for governor. Above, holding the steering wheel, she is shown in a skit at an anti-nuke rally held across the street from the Matagorda nuclear plant.
Longtime local activist Susan Lee Solar died Feb. 13. Solar crusaded for various peace and justice causes, and in 1998 ran for governor. Above, holding the steering wheel, she is shown in a skit at an anti-nuke rally held across the street from the Matagorda nuclear plant. (Photo By Alan Pogue)

When activist/artist Susan Lee Solar died unexpectedly last month, her friends knew just how to commemorate her. Within hours, they flocked to Barton Springs Pool, Solar's favorite swimming spot, to share stories about the little woman with a heart as deep and spiritual as the springs. "After she died that morning, we were standing in the ICU waiting room -- we were just kind of numb -- and someone said, 'We need to meet at Barton Springs at five o'clock,'" friend and poet Susan Bright recalled of Feb. 13, the day Solar died of streptococcal pneumonia. "It was totally impromptu. There were about 50 or 60 of us who gathered there at the pool and we all stood in a circle and told Susan Lee stories."

There were so many stories to tell -- too many to relate here, of course. But no doubt the group talked about Solar's giant Energy Dragon puppet, an outfit she wore to Austin City Council meetings in the Seventies and to anti-nuke protests. And there was the time when, as a Green Party write-in candidate for governor in 1998, Solar spent a long weekend in jail after her arrest outside of Gov. George W. Bush's mansion, where she had protested nuclear waste dumping in Texas.

Born Susan Lee Campbell on Dec. 30, 1941, the Houston native changed her name to Solar when she launched her write-in candidacy for governor; the name stuck. The mother of two grown daughters, she was also a bilingual teacher at Pickle Elementary School -- a position she held since last fall.

Bright remembers meeting Solar for the first time in the early Seventies in Austin. "She and [former husband] Hoyt Purvis would hold New York Times reading parties in their home on Sunday afternoons, and we'd all bring food and meet over there and read the Times," said Bright, publisher of Plain View Press. "I got to know some of her artwork and I was so impressed by these big sculptures -- they were bigger than she was." Indeed, Solar had so many interests and projects, it was hard to stay apace of her high-energy endeavors. Her friends are committed to completing her latest project: Quality of Mercy, a book about the Texas death penalty system that Solar had spent the last two years researching and writing. In 1985, Bright's Plain View Press published Solar's first book, You Ask What Does This Mean, This Interest in Goddesses, Prehistoric Religions?

Solar's cheerful personality was so infectious, Pickle School principal Claudia Santamaria recalls, that she hired her just moments into her job interview. "I had nine questions I was asking of all the applicants, and after the third question, I put my pen down and said, 'Susan, we want you at Pickle.' It was her spirit that was just so enchanting ... Susan had traveled the world, and she had a way of bringing the world to these kids." Solar's death created such a void at the school, "we're just not ready to hire anyone to replace her yet," Santamaria added. "Susan was like a bumble bee, she was always going, going, going. And when Susan taught -- it was like she was onstage."

On the Sunday after Solar died, a large crowd turned out for a memorial service at Stacy Park, just around the corner from her South Austin home. Friends and family members were there, along with fellow activists. Bicyclist Jerry Chamkis used his bike to pedal-power a public address system in Solar's honor, and some of Solar's first-grade students sang a song. "It was a song that Susan taught them," Santamaria said. "It was about reading -- that reading is fun." Since then, friends Ric Sternberg and Annie Borden have created www.aimproductions.com/SusanLee/, a Web site devoted to keeping Solar's spirit alive.

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