Susie Warburton wouldn’t go to the door to meet her blind date, set up by her aunt and uncle. She left that to her roommate.
“She looked at him, came to get me and said, ‘Honey, if you don’t go, I am,’” Susie recalled in a recent interview.
Eighteen months later, Crest Hill first-grade teacher Susie Warburton and Mickey McMurry were married on Dec. 21, 1973.
Susie McMurry has been many things in her nearly 73 years — daughter, teacher, mother of two, faithful foster parent, nana, tireless volunteer, philanthropist and visionary when it comes to the needs of a community.
She has known tragedy — deep and soul-sucking. She is a widow, having lost her beloved partner Mickey to suicide in March 2015. She is the mother of two daughters, the youngest of whom she describes as a “lost person,” after multiple times in residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
“I honestly don’t know how I did it,” she says of the time immediately following Mickey’s death. “Giving up for me was never an option. That came from my parents. Such kindness was shown to me, and I will never forget it. I tell you it does take strength and courage. I could never have made it without my family.”
She credits her late parents, Tillie and Robert Warburton, with giving her and her three sisters, two older, one younger, “a wonderful childhood.”
“We lived very, very modestly. We all lived in a one-bathroom house and didn’t know any differently," she said. "We had everything we needed but we really didn’t have much looking back.”
She was raised in Elk Mountain and Hanna, graduating in a class of 24 from Hanna High School. Two years at Casper College followed, only because her parents wouldn’t let her stay home.
“I didn’t want to leave my mom and dad,” she said, “but my parents said I was going to college.”
After Casper College, she attended the University of Wyoming, graduating with a degree in elementary education and a minor in vocal music. Then began a brief teaching career in Casper, until that blind date with Mickey moved her toward building a family and a life of giving.
After working for his father in Wyoming highway road construction, Mickey and business partners developed the natural gas field, Jonah Field, in southwest Wyoming. That quickly elevated the family to among the wealthiest in Wyoming. Twenty-one years ago, Mickey and Susie established the McMurry Foundation, which grants money to numerous organizations, especially those working with children and on health care issues.
The legacy that the McMurry Foundation has left on Wyoming in incalculable. Kids with nowhere to go after school, piccolo players in a marching band, grieving families needing food after a funeral, all and thousands more have benefited from Susie McMurry’s volunteerism in addition to her checkbook.
She started volunteering by joining the Casper Service League when her girls were small, and the volunteering that became the hallmark of her life just blossomed from there.
Her parents showed her that stepping forward to help others is always the right thing to do, if not financially then with love and support in whatever way they could help.
She counts those who she has helped as among her biggest role models, and suggests that young people find great role models in their own lives and concentrate on being kind to one another.
“There are great children who have wisdom beyond their years and they honestly become mentors for their peers,” she said.
She was asked to join the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Wyoming board nearly two decades ago and met executive director Ashley Bright.
“He is a hero in my life,” she said. “I would never tell Ashley no. He has such a big heart and such great ideas.”
Susie steered the multi-million dollar campaign to build a new club in 2003-04, brought the Cowboy Ethics program into the clubs and high schools throughout the state and most recently has made a huge donation for an upgraded technology center at the club so members can have the finest in technology after school to do their homework.
“Susie McMurry means everything to our state. She inspires every child to understand that dreams do come true,” Bright said. “While Mick’s legacy continues to build a better Wyoming, Susie energizes us through prayer and action to build a beloved community.”
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At the University of Wyoming, the McMurrys’ giving can be seen on the actual playing surface, Jonah Field, where the Cowboys play in the fall, as well as in the High Altitude Performance Center in the north end zone and in the gorgeous Marion Rochelle Gateway Center just southeast of the stadium.
But it can also be seen whenever the Western Thunder Marching Band performs anywhere, whether in a downtown bar or at halftime.
“I don’t care at all about athletics,” Susie said. “I go to every game and hardly ever watch the game. But the times I did watch, it always involved the band and I thought these are unrecognized young people. We need to support the band. They work as hard as athletes do. They were over-the-top excited because no one was supporting the band.”
In addition to much other band support over the years, in September Susie bought the band new dark brown Resistol cowboy hats.
Ben Blalock is the president of the University of Wyoming Foundation. He says Susie McMurry changed his life because of her generous spirit.
“She has forever changed the impact of philanthropy in our state,” Blalock said. “She sees our world through a different lens. Her philanthropy gave me the privilege of knowing her, yet it was the true person she is that has given me one of my most important friendships. Her strength is a defining statement that a single life can change our world.”
Susie and Mickey adopted oldest daughter, Trudi McMurry Holthouse, from Catholic Social Services when she was 4 days old. They left a highway construction job outside of Worland and drove the length of the state to claim their first daughter, who remains Susie’s shining light.
They continued a long legacy of foster parenting and eventually adopted a second daughter. That daughter now lives in Florida, and retired Casper deputy police chief and current McMurry companies employee Mark Stuhlmiller is her legal guardian. Susie attempts to keep in touch with her and worries like any mother does.
“He saved my life doing that,” Susie said of Stuhlmiller, “but I worry about her continuously. She is just a lost person. I panic like every mom does that I won’t be able to find her, or will one day get that phone call.”
The last foster child Mickey and Susie welcomed into their home was Lou Davis.
“It became clear to us that we were going to be too old to see her through to adulthood, so Trudi and her first husband adopted her. She is my oldest grandchild and we remain very, very close.” Trudi has three other daughters, making Susie a very busy nana in addition to her other daily responsibilities running a multi-company legacy, the foundation and volunteering. Lou is also the mother of Susie’s only great-grandchild, Neil, who turns 4 next month.
Children and health care have been the primary focus of the McMurry Foundation’s generosity through the years.
She is a founding member of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) in Natrona County because of her first-hand dissatisfaction with how foster children were treated and how they stayed in the system way too long.
She and the late Ellie Ellbogen and Gail Kennah founded Gentle Hands at Wyoming Medical Center, which Susie describes as a ministry rather than a program. Knowing that medical professionals do a great job but don’t often have time just to sit with patients, that was the sole goal of it.
“I would walk into these people’s rooms and say, ‘Dear God, please bless these words that come from my mouth,’” Susie said.
People still approach her on the street and say they remember when she came to the hospital and just sat there and held a hand or listened.
She is a longtime, active member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, where the Rev. Gary Ruzicka is pastor. She credits her belief in God and her faith with getting her through the roughest times.
“She is one of the most energetic, vibrant people that I know,” said Ruzicka, who has known her since moving to Casper in 1990. “She is not a pretentious individual, she is just as common and ordinary as anybody. Her humility and ordinariness is only surpassed by her generosity.”
She was on the steering committee to transform the ancient St. Anthony’s School downtown into the city’s St. Anthony’s Tri-Parish School on the campus of Our Lady of Fatima parish.
“She is a woman of vision and in that vision she is always willing to step up and support that vision to make it a reality,” Ruzicka said. “Her talent is that once she has a vision, she can sell it. She has the energy and that vivacious sparkle about her. She is a woman who lives her faith.”
Nearing 73, Susie McMurry is not about to slow down. The morning of this interview, she had two committee meetings back-to-back and maintains an office at the McMurry companies' headquarters.
She may have been timid when Mickey McMurry first knocked at the door five decades ago, but Susie McMurry’s willingness to act since has indeed left its mark on Wyoming.
Follow Sally Ann Shurmur on Twitter @wyosas.