We light a candle today for Dr. Susan Alexander Speeth.
This “in memoriam” post was originally written on October 23rd, 2015, marking the 40th anniversary of her untimely passing. A young mother with a doctorate in microbiology who was working at University of Pennsylvania as a biology lab technician, Susan herself was much more than a headline. She was also a fabulous, classically trained violinist. She had studied with the famed B. F. Skinner at Harvard, where she had met her husband, the late Sheridan Speeth, in Skinner’s lab. She had volunteered with the Quakers on behalf of the city’s poor, had marched for civil rights and for peace, and had traveled with her husband and children less than 15 years after India’s 1947 independence, to live and work in India, as one of the co-founders of a school for a group of children who were then known as untouchables (now Dalits), a group falling below the caste system.
That school was called “Why Not! A Centre for Total Education” and was located outside of New Delhi. The experimental school borrowed loosely from Skinner, Montessori and others, and was envisioned during a time of educational experimentation and innovation in India. Spanning a spectrum of subjects, the Center attracted many young people traveling through India.
During the experimental school years, the school’s mailing address was 78 Sunder Nagar, New Delhi. Workshops illustrating the school’s approaches were conducted at schools in New Delhi including the American Embassy School.The school as described operated from 1969-1971, after which it became the Indira Gandhi School, operated by the Bharat Sevak Semaj. The Center continued to operate in Sunder Nagar, New Delhi, as a preschool until 1973. The logo below is shared with permission of the designer, Jo Hayward Haines, who was also involved at the school along with Susan’s husband Sheridan Speeth, and Baba Bedi.
The Center demonstrated by its practices the fundamental equality of souls, and rights of all children to a quality education, one that helps them discover themselves and the world they live in and nurtures them into adulthood, regardless of background. As such, a major focus was on curriculum development. Another was designing the responsive environment for the children, who hailed from a village outside New Delhi. At this Ashok Vihar school there was a small zoo designed and operated by the former director of a zoo in Istanbul, a garden operated by a couple of American farmers, an art program , a biology class and language and music instruction. The playground equipment, constructed of whatever spare parts could be found, embodied the autotelic principles designed and developed by Sheridan Speeth in the USA.
The world lost a point of light, that evening forty years ago, when Susan’s life was taken just a few years later by a stranger as she was taking an after-dinner walk alone at night near her home on S. 49th Street in West Philadelphia, sparking Take Back the Night demonstrations in that city, that very weekend. The headline of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Historic Philadelphia’s Oldest Daily, the Bicentennial Newspaper, for Saturday October 25th 1975 (which incidentally cost only 15 cents) stated simply: W. Philadelphia Poised to ‘Take Back the Night’. The tragedy was also covered by The Evening Bulletin. In his article “Block Group Eases Fear,” staff journalist Jim Nicholson gave deep insight into the mindset that helps us help others: “That man standing on the corner for two nights; is he a neighbor out for some air, or a thug casing the neighborhood? Too often, life in a big city means finding out the answer to that the hard way.” He noted, however, that “within hours after Mrs. Speeth, 37, a lab assistant, was stabbed to death across the street from her home, other residents in the University section of West Philadelphia have been meeting to quell the stimulated fears of some residents.” He quotes the Executive Director of the organization CLASP, Mrs. Wegener, who reminds us that, “where people are close to one another in a neighborhood and know one another, there is less trouble. If you hear someone screaming in the house across the street you are more likely to investigate if you know them than if they are strangers.” She reminded readers that “The best defense in a neighborhood is to have a lot of people on the street after dark.” This was, tragically, not the case on the fated night. And the writer poetically captured the family’s tragedy: “Police set up a small barricade around the blood-stained spot on the pavement. The stain was partially covered yesterday by autumn leaves falling from the tall trees lining the street.” An untimely autumn.
Susan had good neighbors, including doctor Michael Weibel, MD, who tried to stop the bleeding, and Charlotte Walsh, a nurse from Philadelphia General Hospital, were among those who responded. Although they were unable to save her life, their efforts that evening continue to touch the hearts of the family, decades later.
This website ascribes to, and fosters, the #nonotoriety practices outlined at nonotoriety.com. It goes beyond public safety. It’s also right. It is those who try to help – and not harm – who deserve their names known and celebrated.