November 10, 1931- October 11, 2022
Susanna Capers began her remarkable life in Dayton, Ohio, as Susanna Marie Johnston, only daughter of Ida Somerhalter and William Johnston, and sister to firstborn Patrick “Sonny” Johnston. She loved to fondly recall stories her mother told of her father holding her on his lap eagerly awaiting the day he might dance with her. Sadly, she lost her father at the tender age of 3 months and the family moved into Grandma Somerhalter’s home to reside in the bustle of a full house of aunts and uncles, everyone contributing to the life, laughter and living that sustained them.
Her mother remarried Clayton Nye and had twins, Connie and Clayton Jr.,”Corky”
shortly before Susanna had her first child, Patrick Nicholas Traylor, “Nick”, who she named after her deceased brother, Patrick. They all lived together, for the first few years of Nick’s young life.
Susanna met William T. Capers III on a blind date and by their third date had happily agreed to venture the world with him through his career in the US Air Force. She and 5 year-old Nick joined Bill in Ft. Worth, Texas, where sisters Rebecca “Becky” and Catherine “Cathey” were born.
Together the family traveled and lived in: post-war Berlin Germany; Virginia; (where her youngest daughter Melissa was born and joined us), Mexico City; The Republic of Panama; Ohio;, Hawaii; Alabama; Richmond, Virginia; finally retiring in Alexandria, Virginia.
Susanna set up each home, insisting, wherever possible, we live in the community and not on military bases. She registered us in schools, and supported Bill as a consummate host of diplomatic parties and functions. Regardless of the length of our stay she learned about each community, studied the language and culture, planted gardens, and put down roots as if we were to be long-time residents. Beauty to her was not incidental, it was integral to a life well lived and we all lived in the beauty she created. As Melissa, her youngest daughter, wrote recently, “I think she strived for us to have what she most cherished: the feeling of rootedness and security she understood as home, a connection to community and compassion for those struggling to survive and belong, a feeling of wonder at this world in which we live, and a willingness to adventure out into it.”
As the nest began to empty she opened it to foster children and refugee children and families, all of who would remember her and my father dearly for their hospitality and warmth during their transition to the United States.
While she brought an unfettered joy to every place she went, she did not look away from suffering. Rather, she extended her sense of hospitality to the growing population of un-housed families and individuals that she lamented to see on the streets upon returning to the US from abroad.
She dove into researching the causes of this issue and practical solutions to resolving it. This resulted in her establishing the first statewide Coalition for the Homeless in Richmond, Virginia and conducting the first yearly surveys and conferences of providers. She traveled statewide visiting shelters and collecting firsthand accounts from families, individuals and providers of services. As she learned some of the root causes, she studied the tax system and lobbied for over a decade until the first state earned income tax was passed, bringing some relief to working families. She lobbied successfully for millions of dollars in aid for shelter providers and established the first transitional housing units in Richmond. She valued collaboration and created lasting friendships with people in the housing, business, government and religious sectors.
Colleagues described her work as “unprecedented”. Before she arrived the state had not allocated a single dollar for the growing problem of homelessness. She accomplished all of this with no formal training or education but with an unswerving passion for justice. She deeply believed that in a democratic country, the major element missing was the will to restore justice and solve this pressing issue. She dedicated decades to inspiring and educating both lawmakers and ordinary citizens to end this plague of poverty and homelessness.
As her grandson Brian notes, “Calling her an activist was an understatement but it wasn’t a way to score political points or seek moral superiority, it was her calling and who she was…”
Her final decade she spent in Austin, Texas where two of her daughters live. The family supported her from near and far as she experienced the journey of Alzheimer’s disease.
Her final four years she lived at the Silverado Memory Care facility, where we witnessed the joy she brought to residents, her visitors and the caring staff there.
Susanna is survived by her four children: Nick Traylor (Pam), Rebecca Capers (Lisa), Cathey Capers (Breck), Melissa Capers (Bruni); six grandchildren: Elizabeth, Madelaine, Brian, Ethan, Alec, Anton; and four great grandchildren: Giselle, Elodie, Jasmine, and Guy. She also leaves behind her sister Connie Nye, nephew Justin, niece Sarah, and Cousins Susie Morin and Sue McClellan.
Having been raised in the light of two Irish Grandmothers her final blessing, which always hung in her homes, would likely be:
An Irish Blessing
May the road rise with you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we meet again, may God keep you in the hollow of His hand.