I keep a note taped to the chair in front of my desk,” says Susan Hess. “It says ‘Just Say No.’”
It hasn’t worked.
Since moving to New Orleans in the 1980s from New York City, Hess hasn’t been able to stop herself from volunteering her time and talents to a dizzying array of local organizations covering everything from the National Urban League to the Girl Scouts.
“I’m really having to pare down now,” she says, speaking about the full-time position she will take up in December as president of the City Park board.
Hess joined the park’s commission two years before Hurricane Katrina, just when the park had begun a lengthy two-year strategic planning process. The plan was adopted in May. Katrina hit three months later.
“The devastation to the park was just so complete,” she says. “Every building, every bird, every plant.”
Following the storm, Hess jumped in to help raise funds, even bringing members of the Trust for Public Land (of which she was a local officer) from San Francisco and Seattle to garner their support.
“That’s how we got that big lake area in front of NOMA,” she says.
Hess says she’s proud of how the park has bounced back bigger and better, but there’s still so much to be done – future additions are set to include a splash park and a championship golf course. She is committed to carrying out the park’s strategic plan before her two-year presidential term is up.
Hess’ presidential role is only the latest in a long line of leadership position that have included founding the Louisiana Association of Film and Video Professionals (her husband is in the film industry), and serving as the president of the Louisiana Nature and Science Center when it opened.
An animal lover with six dogs, she’s particularly proud of her work with the Louisiana SPCA, which includes serving as a past president and chairing the capital campaign for a new building after Katrina.
She also remains committed to her alma mater, the University of New Orleans. Since serving as one of the original members of the UNO Foundation, she has worked to connect the university to the local business community and chaired the school’s 30th, 40th and 50th annual celebrations.
Hess says that all the late nights, all the sneaking out to coffee shops to get in a few extra hours, have been more than worth it.
“I love this city,” she says. “I’ve always said that I have gotten more out of doing this work than it has gotten out of me.”
mentor: My husband’s grandmother, Edith Stern, (owner of Longue Vue House & Gardens) was my true mentor. She was the wisest person I have ever known. She was comfortable in every milieu and could read people perfectly. I was so sorry when she died because I still had so much I could have learned from her. Thinking of what she taught me has always helped me choose the right path.
defining moment: I was president of the Louisiana Nature Center when it opened in the early 1980s. We really pushed to make that happen.
Looking back on that time has made me realize that I have always loved the hard job, the one that would challenge me the most and really make me stretch.
advice for young women: From personal experience I’ll say that reaching a “decade” birthday can be really difficult. To help you slide through, pick an ambitious goal well in advance. When you achieve your goal you will feel so good about yourself that the birthday will be easy!
goals: Becoming president of City Park has been a goal of mine since Hurricane Katrina. I’m determined to help bring the park back to its full glory so it can take its place as one of the best urban parks in the United States.
favorite thing about what I do: Virtually my whole life has been spent in the field of volunteerism. It has been a wonderful gift. I have been privileged to be able to always choose what I love to do. The more I have worked at it, the more I have been rewarded. I have seen the fruits of my labor spread out and benefit our whole community. Could anyone ask for anything better?