Susan L. Farmer joins her forebears, Bishop Alexander Griswold and Anne Hutchinson as an inductee into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. Like Hutchinson, a pioneer in many areas, including the advancement of women, Susan was a “first” as well. When elected Secretary of State in 1982, she became the first woman elected in Rhode Island to a statewide office. As Secretary of State she introduced technology to the office, purged the voting rolls, and received national acclaim for her voter education program in the classroom. Her stellar performance merited her re-election in 1984 with more votes than any Republican for statewide office in Rhode Island history.
Susan served as president and chief executive officer of Rhode Island’s Public Broadcasting System for over seventeen years. As only the fifth woman nationally to head a PBS station, she rescued WSBE-TV from its imminent demise by establishing the Rhode Island PBS Foundation, raising viewership, increasing contributions by 600%, and setting up the first connection of classrooms to the Internet. Her PBS colleagues recognized her efforts by electing her chair of its National Forum of Public Television Executives in 1999, and the National Association of Public Television Stations bestowed upon her the Advocate of the Year Award in 2004.
Public service was the hallmark of her life. In government her skills were sought on such diverse boards as the Commission on Ethics in Government, which she chaired; the Providence Human Relations Commission, which she served as secretary; the Mayor’s Task Force on Child Abuse, the Commission to Preserve An Independent Judiciary, the accrediting board for technical and career institutions of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Governor’s Telecommunications Task Force; and a court-appointed special advocate for abused children. In 1979, she was elected to the Providence Home Rule Charter Commission where she became a co-author of the city’s current charter.
Her work among non-profit agencies included chair of the board of directors of Marathon House, an addiction treatment facility, and chair of Challenge House, a half-way house for felons. She also served on the board of directors of the Rhode Island Anti-Drug Coalition, the Counsel on Alcoholism, the Film Commission, Planned Parenthood, Justice Assistance, DAWN for Children, Inc., the Miriam Hospital Foundation, and more.
Susan was a trustee of the Wheeler School and Stoneleigh-Burnham School; and a member of the corporations of Butler Hospital, the Visiting Nurses Association, Meeting Street School, the Providence Public Library, and the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center.
For this impressive array of humanitarian service, Susan was elected as Woman of the Year by two prominent women’s organizations, and received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Bryant University.
While Susan has been a role model for excellence in public service, one of her greatest achievements has been her grace and humor in the face of a diagnosis of stage IV cancer. She has reached out to others by establishing a support group for those undergoing experimental treatment. The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame inducts her today for the largesse of her heart and the strength of her spirit.
- Arlene Violet, Esq.
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