Susan Moeller describes herself as someone who was never an expert. “So I just asked a lot of questions—and got things done.”
Moeller, now 75, first came to the desert in 1993 as redevelopment director for Cathedral City. Born in Superior, Wis., she arrived in Southern California at the age of 8.
“We lived in Long Beach and could see the racetrack at Los Alamitos from our backyard,” she says.
During World War II, Moeller’s father was rescued in France by Gen. George Patton. “My mother didn’t know if (my father) was alive when I was delivered by the nuns,” Moeller says. “My mom worked for BFGoodrich doing special-project work, but she never really knew how smart she was.”
Moeller’s dad was a truck driver, and was the first in his family to attend college. “He was the youngest of eight kids, always known to everybody as ‘Uncle Buck,’” Moeller says. “He was a good man, and would always help anybody who needed it. My dad died when mom was 60, and she lived into her 90s, always doing projects and keeping herself busy. That’s the main lesson I got from her: ‘Just keep on keeping on.’
“My younger brother and sister and I were always encouraged to follow our dreams. My sister became a teacher and coach, my brother a CPP (certified payroll professional). I just always wanted to have a ‘me.’”
After attending California State College at Long Beach, majoring in English with a minor in drama, Moeller joined an improv group and performed at colleges throughout Southern California. After some time as an English teacher, Moeller was hired as a project aide for the city of Fresno. She found herself working for a man from India who had been trained at the United Nations; he was impressed with Moeller’s communication skills.
“Because of my teaching background, he had me review whatever he wrote,” she says. “I’m very intuitive, while he was very methodical. What I learned was how to write grants for federal funding. We needed to find solutions for housing, infrastructure, redevelopment and education, but it was the 1960s, and we were able to get money for drug-prevention and treatment programs. I learned to identify problems and think from the perspective of what we could do to fix them. We would then talk to officials in the field to figure out what would work.”
Moeller’s career later took her to Santa Ana, where she wrote and reviewed grants as director of the South Orange County YMCA (“It was the first time I had worked with a board of all women; we got a program for mature women adopted!”); and, after almost 10 years in Cathedral City, to Redwood City for another decade, where, Moeller says, “It all came together. We could get to a point where projects would start to fall apart, but I thought of myself as an opportunity broker, and it all just jelled. I know about redevelopment, and I loved it.”
Moeller says, somewhat surprisingly, that spirituality was an integral part of the work she did with city governments. “It was a kind of synchronicity. I was able to make good things happen for people. I’m particularly proud of the investment in downtown Cathedral City.”
Moeller’s affection for Cathedral City shines through when she talks about her time there. “I watched community faces as they toured what we had done to downtown. People were so proud. They were worth the investment, even though, here in the valley, there is still prejudice against Cathedral City. When I first got here after having worked in seven other cities, I felt like the Coachella Valley was (behind) 10 years, regarding everything from housing to civil rights to agriculture.
“The city manager was Bruce Liedstrand, and he was my mentor. He was willing to work with the community for two years to come up with a vision. In the other cities down here, it would get to a point where the community wouldn’t even know what the planners were doing. Bruce made sure the community ‘owned’ the project.
“There’s still a lot to be completed, and the proposed casino will help if it’s connected to downtown, and people can take advantage of that connection.”
Moeller is now retired.
“There are things I like about retirement, and things I don’t,” she says. “I retired in 2012, but I guess I didn’t really retire. I depleted myself with care-giving when my mom died, and then my son broke his leg. (Moeller has two sons, as well as step-children from her current marriage.) And now I’ve had a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. When the tremor started, I was told to slow down, and to think of it as just stuck energy. I’ve finally shifted my attention to me as a project.”
While talking to Moeller, one gets the sense that she’s a gentle soul.
“I’ve always wanted to see people come together, and I think people yearn for community,” she says. “I guess I’m a Pollyanna: I like to see the glass half full. I believe people want to do the right thing and be part of something bigger than themselves.
“My bottom line has always been: Don’t be afraid to ask the questions that might make you uncomfortable, but which can lead you where you want to be.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.