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Profile in Courage

Stahl's work sets bar high for area girls

Her contribution was recently recognized
by Madison Area Chamber

(March 2015) –A phone conversation with former Madison Mayor Al Huntington is a little like listening to an announcer at the Westminster Dog Show. First, one hears the enthusiasm for the subject. Next, came examples of excellence, not unlike what one hears about a major contender at the Olympics. The former mayor was talking about one of his favorite people, Susan Stahl, executive director of Girls Inc of Jefferson County (Ind.). 
Huntington knows Stahl quite well, and he has high regard for her. He serves on the Board of Directors at Girls Inc., and his own daughters went there years ago. His wife was a former board member. He had many dealings with Stahl when he was mayor, and he has absolute respect for her ethics, hard work and integrity.
“Her vision and wisdom and leadership have resulted in a dynamic that includes excellent programs for girls from grade school to high school,” Huntington said. He admires her ethical standards and personal responsibility, evident at work, in the community and in her home life with her husband, John. “She is just truly a giver, not a taker.”

Susan Stahl

Photo by Alice Jane Smith

Susan Stahl poses in front of the Girls Inc. of Jefferson County (Ind.) building, where she has guided the program for the past 30 years.

On Jan. 21, Stahl received the Jeff Garrett Community Service Award, presented by the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce at its Annual Dinner. In a support letter for the award, Huntington referred to Stahl’s love of dogs, indicating that he knows her well.
Among many other statements, he said that she “has a flat-coated retriever” named Holland. In words reminiscent of Westminster,” he described breed characteristics (loves to play, intelligent, loyal, active, reliable, friendly, sweet) and added playfully that Stahl has the same ones. A few minutes later, Huntington sounded more like the Olympics announcer when he said that Stahl has “raised the bar for how non-profit organizations should be run in Jefferson County.”
In her 30 years of leadership at Girls Inc., she has shown “business savvy” in running a $1.6 million capital campaign, has overseen a diversity of programs, and has been a “great mentor and role model for girls,” he said. “She gives girls the tools for confidence, self-esteem and dignity. At Girls Inc., they have one place where they feel safe every day.” On an average day, 75 to 90 girls go to programs there. 
Stahl, 57, grew up in the Indianapolis area, where she was raised by parents who valued giving and helping. She was graduated from Lawrence Central High School. Her parents had property at Bethlehem, in Clark County, so she often visited southern Indiana. She went to Purdue University and graduated with a degree in agriculture. For three years, she worked with the Department of Agriculture mapping soil around the state.
Her parents had instilled strong philanthropic values in her, however, and soil mapping did not satisfy her needs. “My parents always shared with people, in good times and in bad. Dad was always bringing home stray animals.”
A friend told her about an opening for a program development job at the Girls’ Inc. in Madison.
She applied, was hired, and moved here in April, 1983. Nine months later, she became the executive director. In 1990, she married John Stahl, who was a pilot for Grote Industries, among other things.
Stahl always has been involved in the community, including Bethany Circle of King’s Daughters’ Hospital, the Pilot Club, Tri Kappa sorority and the Coalition Against Substance Abuse of Jefferson County. She is active in the Trinity Methodist Church. For fun, she has started agility classes with Holland, “escapes into movies” and grows strawberries.
Her life changed dramatically on June 6, 2004. Her husband, John, had run for Jefferson County Sheriff but lost the fall election. He still worked as a deputy. Stahl returned home from a Tri Kappa meeting, and her husband “stopped by the house and headed out up (State Road) 7.” From sounds on the scanner, she began to realize something was wrong.
Something was terribly wrong. Stahl had swerved to avoid a head-on collision with a driver who had passed in a no-pass lane on a hill. His vehicle ran into a pole and caught fire. His wife said there were many guardian angels tending to the scene, along with help from law enforcement, especially the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. She did not think her husband would survive the night. He was in a coma almost two months and was treated in three hospitals (Louisville, Cincinnati and Madison). “All did a wonderful job with him.” He was home by Thanksgiving.
Stahl spoke from an inner core of courage and congruence as she sat at a table in a peaceful setting at Girls Inc. and talked about the world of Traumatic Brain Injury. This was “a whole world I didn’t know existed,” she said. The Traumatic Brain Injury her husband experienced has made profound changes in their life together.
“The John I knew died that night,” she said quietly, and she had to get to know the new John. “All things considered, we are doing well and living with the aftermath. He is lucky to be alive.” Susan attended TBI support groups in Indianapolis.
In almost 11 years since the tragedy, John also has shown courage in his difficult recovery. He has progressed from relearning basic life skills, such as talking, walking and feeding himself, to practicing the higher functioning ones. For someone who used to be a pilot, it is no minor miracle that he now can drive a vehicle. He had a Facebook page, where he enjoys communicating with others, sometimes reminding them that he has a few memory problems. This takes humility and courage. He is devoted to the dogs, especially to Stella, a chocolate lab beagle.” 
After his accident, Susan took their German Shepherd, Max, to visit him in the hospital in Cincinnati. Friends were taking care of the pets since the couple already had been in hospitals for a month. Max was scared, and Susan got upset over the failed reunion. Mamie, a Huskie, eventually became John’s guard dog, and Max soon settled down. It took some time for the dogs to adjust. And it took time for the couple to adjust. They accepted new normals. Sadly, now, there is a new adjustment to be made, as Max died just two weeks ago.

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