The Voice and Face of Mercersburg: Susan Simar Retiring After 32 Years
When Susan Simar P ’86, ’90, ’91 was little, she had to ask her mother to sell Girl Scout cookies for her. “I was unable to approach people and ask for money and I'm still that way,” she says, “but when people arrive in Traylor Hall and walk into ‘my’ living room, I can unashamedly ‘sell’ all the wonderful reasons they should consider this special place.”
Simar is the friendly, familiar figure who greets every visiting family to Mercersburg, and after serving the school for 32 years, she will be stepping down from her role as Mercersburg’s admission receptionist as she embarks on retirement in October.
“If ever there were to be an exception to the notion that we are all replaceable, it would be for Susan Simar,” says Quentin McDowell, associate head of school for external relations. “For more than 30 years, it has been her voice that the world hears when they call Mercersburg Academy. It is her enviable poise and grace that have greeted tens of thousands of families visiting Mercersburg, all of whom left campus with the sense of comfort and belonging that Susan so carefully instills in everyone she encounters. She deserves our deepest respect and endless gratitude for her service to Mercersburg.”
Simar came to the school in 1988 when her husband Ron took a job as Mercersburg’s director of athletics, and she found a position in the library. “It was not the place for me,” she says. “You had to be a disciplinarian along with having broad knowledge and great research skills, and I especially didn’t like the disciplinarian portion.” After four years, Simar found a more appropriate fit with the admission team in Traylor Hall, and she’s been there ever since.
“I like welcoming families into my home,” she says, “and because I love Mercersburg, I want them to leave at least understanding how I feel and how they could possibly feel the same way. Even when they don’t choose Mercersburg, I think they understand why we feel that way, and they will recommend the school to other families.”
In the beginning, Simar’s role focused on data entry. She welcomed new families and then stepped back and let them experience Mercersburg. Over the years, however, her interpersonal skills began to shine through, and her role changed. She could recognize which families might want to sit down and talk, which families might need some extra support, and which families would benefit from hearing stories of the school and her experiences as both an employee and a Mercersburg parent and grandparent (Simar’s son, two stepchildren, and granddaughter are all Mercersburg alumni).
“I only wish I had the opportunity to experience Mercersburg for my high-school years, not just for the academics and extracurriculars but because I would have found my voice and self confidence as a teenager,” she says. “I would have found lifelong friends who were from different worlds literally and figuratively from me just as my children and granddaughter have found.”
Simar feels awestruck when she thinks of the Mercersburg alumni she knows who have gone on to truly impressive feats: founding companies, saving lives in the medical field, hosting national television programs, and more. She’s always grateful when the opportunity comes to reconnect, and her caring approach and school pride have endeared her to countless students and families over the years. Just last winter, for instance, she found herself in the midst of a very hectic December, and she didn’t have time to put up a Christmas tree. “I told Jim Kaurudar ’98 that,” she says, “and immediately in the mail came a ceramic Christmas tree, and he said, ‘Now, you always have a Christmas tree if you can’t get your other one up,’ and I thought that was the kindest, most thoughtful gesture.”
As the years have gone by, Simar has been asked about retirement, but she’s always had the same answer: “Everyone said that I would know when the time was right. I’ve always said I’ll take it year by year.”
During the 2019-2020 academic year, Simar weathered the switch to a new database system with relative ease. (With a wry smile, she refers to the system known as Veracross as “Vera.”) But the COVID-19 pandemic has just been too much. Simar says nearly all visitors to Traylor Hall give her a hug at the end of a visit, but now everything is going virtual.
“I’ve worked because I love the job,” she says. “It’s so rewarding to be able to make people comfortable, to establish those relationships, to have those relationships continue, to start a chapter of a child’s life and want to get to the end of the chapter, and then another chapter starts with a new child, and you want to keep on going. But I wasn’t even going to be able to start those chapters because I wasn’t going to be able to meet the child. And again, because I am 73, did I want to work through and literally relearn everything when retirement was looming?”
In a meeting this summer with McDowell and Director of Admission Anna Crouch, the three of them discussed what virtual admission would look like and how Simar’s role would change, and she knew it was time to step back. “It made it easy,” she says, “except for leaving everyone at Mercersburg. I get emotional. It is so hard to walk away from the people I work with and the students. But it's not hard to walk away from what’s happening.”
“We cannot seek to ‘replace’ Susan, so instead we will simply celebrate her and hold her up as a model for what it means to live in service of others,” McDowell says. “We thank you, Susan, for all you have done for your school.”
“Susan has been a constant in my 10 years at Mercersburg, and I'm so grateful to have her in my life, both professionally and personally,” says Crouch. “We've worked side by side on finding the right tour guide for a prospective family, assigning an admission officer to interview students, assisting international families who are applying from afar, and so on. It's hard to imagine Traylor Hall, let alone Mercersburg Academy, without Susan Simar, but I know she's not going far and that her integrity, her strong work ethic, and her dedication to families will live on in our admission work.”
As for what Simar will do in retirement, she has always enjoyed decorating and gardening. (Ron Simar retired from Mercersburg in 2014 after 26 years, but can often be seen on campus working as a school driver or maintaining the baseball field.) “We’ll have the freedom to visit family without consulting a schedule when the virus is over,” she says, and when it becomes safe to do so, “I would like to think I would volunteer for hospice because they were so wonderful for both my parents.”
Although the pandemic may keep visitors out of Traylor Hall for the time being, one day we will return, and we will know that a key person is missing from behind that perfectly organized desk in the main foyer. Simar says the feeling is mutual: “I always tell seniors that I won't say goodbye because I'll look up from my desk in six months or six years or 30 years, and they'll be standing in the doorway of Traylor Hall. I'll miss welcoming them home.”
Editor’s note: Simar was recently honored in the “Living the Values” section of the winter 2020 Mercersburg Academy magazine. Read more about her.