MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

February 25, 2013

Activist follows calling to Muskogee

Philadelphia native seeks to revitalize old buildings

By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer

— For most of Lisa Susanne’s life, Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA never crossed her mind.

The Philadelphia native was too busy growing up, going to college in Boston, raising a family in Phoenix.

However, a few things happened that helped propel Susanne, now 50, to realize she plays a part of Muskogee’s present, future and past.

Lisa Susanne Bicknell spent the first 18 years of her life in the Philadelphia area. She recalled an unhappy childhood.

“I’m a survivor of child abuse,” Susanne said.

She recalled that, by the time she hit age 18, “I wanted to get out of Dodge. I wanted to leave Pennsylvania. But I didn’t know what I wanted to be.”

She enrolled at Boston University and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

“B.U. had a good engineering program,” she said.

After college, she became a senior marketing engineer for an analog delivery service.

“I met my husband, had my first baby, quit my job and moved to Arizona,” she said.

She spent her Phoenix years raising a daughter and an adopted son from Korea.

Her marriage eventually fell apart.

When she was 43, she found a way to start anew. She dropped her last name and decided to go by her first and middle name. She said she legally became Lisa Susanne on her 44th birthday.

About that time, Susanne and her twin sister decided to explore their Native American heritage. During their research, they discovered they had relatives in Muskogee. After that, Susanne felt led to move here.

She pulls no punches on why she came: “God told me to move here.”

“I left Phoenix on April 15, 2008, and arrived on April 17, 2008, and I didn’t know anybody,” she said.

Meet Lisa Susanne



AGE: 50.

HOMETOWN: Philadelphia.

CAREER: Student; community activist.

EDUCATION: Bachelor of science in electrical engineering, Boston University.

FAMILY: Two children, Alana and Skylar; two dogs, a twin sister, brother and mother.

CHURCH: First Baptist Church.

HOBBIES: Being with the dogs, knitting, jogging, movies.

Finding a link

to the past

Part of Lisa Susanne’s research led her to a great-grandfather who lived in Muskogee in its early years.

“I didn’t even know I had Muskogee family until six years ago,” she said.  “We knew we had Cherokee in us. We wanted to travel the Trail of Tears.

She said she discovered a lot about her Muskogee family through a book put together by her great-aunt, who lived in Muskogee. She said discovered names in her history, including Davison and Lewis.

She also discovered interesting things about her ancestors.

“Clarence used to sing barbershop harmony at a YMCA,” she said.

Her interest in area heritage didn’t stop with her family. Shortly after coming to Muskogee, she moved into one of the community’s most historic homes — the home of Capt. Frederick Severs.

“It was interesting that he fought with the Creek Regiment in the Civil War. His wife, Annie Severs, continued to live in this house. She was very well-educated,” she said.

Susanne is working to restore the old 4,600-square-foot house.

“My dream is to see this house restored to all its luster,” she said, adding that she hopes it could be used for events.



The need

to help others

Susanne’s interest in restoration isn’t limited to buildings. She said she also seeks to restore lives.

“We look at decrepit buildings, and we want to just tear them down instead of investing in them,” she said. “I look at people. I feel we need to invest time and energy in them.”

One way Susanne “invests” in restoring people is through the Community First program at First Baptist Church. The ministry has a food pantry and serves as a clearinghouse for people in need. Susanne said she volunteers there three hours each Monday, helping people fill out forms.

She said it’s a humbling experience dealing with the poor and downtrodden.

She recalled one man: “He felt so low about himself he could not look up.”

She touched his arm, and the man’s wife told her nobody ever bothers to touch his arm.

“I made him look me in the eye, and I told him, ‘There was nothing you have done as a human being that defines you,’” she said. “I’d say, ‘See the past as the past. I am not defined by my past.’”

The program helped her be less judgmental.

“It connected me more with the people in the community,” she said. “I know how humbling it must be to go in there and ask for help. It’s a blessing to hold hands with people who are crying because they’re so ashamed to be there in the first place.”

Susanne said she also hopes to get involved in the Bridges Out of Poverty program, which is geared to help people overcome mindsets that keep them in poverty.



Getting involved

in community

One thing Susanne recalled noticing when she moved to Muskogee was the number of buildings that needed repair.

That prompted her to take action.

“I felt led to go to City Council meetings,” she said.

From those, Susanne felt she needed to get involved with Action in Muskogee, a communitywide initiative to improve various aspects of Muskogee. The AIM program has eight areas of focus: cleaner and more beautiful Muskogee; community pride; a great place to live and visit; health and wellness; educational excellence; strong economy; strong infrastructure; and a safe and secure city.

“During the AIM meetings, I found myself drawn to the table on development and infrastructure,” she said. “I’m definitely a champion of trying to preserve and invest in structures.”

Susanne said she knows that some old buildings might not be economically feasible to preserve.

“We would lose the character and charm of our city if we only look at dollars and cents,” she said. “On paper, it might not make sense to preserve a building, but in the bigger picture, it would.”

AIM also brought Susanne in contact with others who feel the same way.

“I’m learning there are a lot of passionate people in Muskogee who care about the community and building it up — and there is hope.”

Q&A

HOW DID YOU BECOME AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE?

“God led me here. Even though I didn’t know anyone when I got here, I almost immediately felt like it was home. I’ve lived a whole bunch of different places in the country, but this is like being home.”

WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MUSKOGEE?

“The character and feel of the city. Everything is in a five-mile radius. It’s homey, but rough around the edges. I like the weather and four seasons.”

WHAT WOULD MAKE MUSKOGEE A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE?

“Revitalization. Loving our neighbors. We need to look out for one another.”

WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING IN MUSKOGEE?

“Student; community activist.”

WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?

“Play with my dogs. Just connecting with other people, having coffee with friends, burgers with neighbors.”

WHAT OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE DO YOU ADMIRE?

“Susan Chepkauskas. She loves God, and it shows. She has a true servant’s heart. She looks where the town needs help, and she’s often willing to do what she can to meet those needs.”

WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN MUSKOGEE?

“So many things have happened, I can’t name one.”

HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP MUSKOGEE IN 25 WORDS OR LESS?

“It’s a good place to live, work and play.”