In every loss, there is a gain Gwen Suesse reflects on life after husband’s death

Published 10:06 pm Thursday, December 31, 2015

By Steve Wong

Photographs submitted

If there is one nugget of absolute truth that I learned in journalism school, it was that everyone has a story to tell. We just have to listen…

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Gwen Suesse graciously allowed me into her uptown Tryon condo one recent afternoon, because friends and neighbors thought she and her husband had led interesting lives, lives that might be food for thought in this magazine. I was there to check it out. She was a bit perplexed, willing to explore the possibilities, but nevertheless perplexed. She had plenty to talk about but wondered what I might do with it all, what angle I might take. I wondered too.

But first things first: Suesse is a Swiss/German name, and today it is pronounced “cease,” as in “cease fire.” You can’t very well ask a person about her life, if you can’t correctively pronounce her name.

“Just call me Gwen,” she says.

Like many seasoned adults in Tryon, Gwen and her late husband Jack are not native to this area, rather they are northern transplants, who, again, like many others, came upon the Carolina Foothills during their worldly travels and decided this is where they would make their last stand. They came in 1999 to build a post and beam home, thoughtfully designed to support their interests and love of nature in Hunting Country, but in 2007, Jack was suddenly taken ill, and 13 days later he passed away from stage-four lung cancer. It was a shock. But not the end of Gwen’s world.

As Gwen recalled those dark days in 2007, her usually vibrant voice would sometimes go just a little deep and just a little less loud. Her eyes would glisten a little, but she carried on because she knew that is what Jack would have wanted. And, almost by profession, Gwen is a strong woman, the kind of woman who seeks all that life has to offer and seeks to keep it in balance in a womanly sort of way.

To hear Gwen tell it, Jack was a make-it-work kind of guy. He was good with his hands. His life’s work was in the technical theatre; theatrical rigging was his specialty. He made it possible for Mary Poppins to fly on stage, for the chandelier to fall in Phantom of the Opera. He may have not designed the set, but when Cirque du Soleil wanted to wow the crowds, it knew just the man to bring on board to figure out how keep the performers safely soaring overhead.

As you might guess, there aren’t many men in the entire world who know the ins and outs of theatrical rigging, making him in high demand around the globe. Gwen gladly recalled their travels to Japan, South America, Spain, Australia, and even Greenville, S.C., where they first began to feel an attraction to the neighboring foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Along the way, Gwen kept busy with their two children and her own career goals. Educated in choral direction, Gwen’s first love was helping others sing well, something that has brought her full circle after a few detours. She is now the volunteer president of the Tryon Concert Association, bringing world-class classical music to the Friendliest Town in the South. In addition, her career path took her toward human resources career counseling, being a life coach, and writing the book Womansong: Balance & Harmony In A Feminine Key, available online at and locally at The Book Shelf in Tryon.

But, it was his career in technical theatre and her work as a vocal coach that first brought Jack and Gwen together in Upstate New York, during a production of West Side Story. He was back stage putting together the show’s lighting when Gwen wandered behind the scenes. He asked her to hold a flashlight; six weeks later they were married. A marriage of 37 years produced a daughter who lives in Boston and a son who now lives in Colorado.

“I didn’t expect to be a widow at 62,” she said toward the end of our hour together. “And all of sudden everything you thought you knew about life is turned on its ear. You just have to put one foot in front of the other. After 37 years, what do I do now?”


Eyes that glistened began to well but not spill; the strong voice cracked just a little. “One of the lovely things about this community is that Tryon takes care of its own. They take care of each other. I was tremendously supported when I needed it. The little and big kindnesses. No one ever let me go. That’s why I decided to stay here. I feel a sense of place in Tryon. My husband and I both felt it. It is like no other place.” And that’s coming from a woman who has lived in more places than I can ever imagine.

And still Gwen wondered whatever in the world I might do with all these summarized facts about her life? It all started when the Tryon Fine Arts Center sent out a press release about a tree she had planted on the venue’s grounds, a tree in honor of Jack. As a walker and volunteer at TFAC, Gwen had noticed that one of the large oaks at TFAC was looking sadder and sadder, suffering from some sort of blight. Knowing Jack’s love of all things wood, she asked TFAC if she could sponsor a replacement tree, a Suminagashi, a striking and distinctive Japanese Maple that grows to between ten and 25 feet high.

“Jack loved the mountains and the trees,” Gwen said, her voice gaining renewed strength. “I knew this would please him. In every loss, there is gain, and that is even true when someone dies. It takes a while to say that,” she said, and I wondered if she was really talking to me. “You blew in and blew out, dang.”

Gwen continues her life’s work in Tryon, and she continues her walks through town. When she passes by TFAC and Jack’s tree, she smiles and says, ‘Hi.’

“A tree is about life,” Gwen said, now her voice back to full strength and her eyes clear. “After the shock of losing someone, life doesn’t end. It changes forms. I guess God is not done with me yet.”


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