By many accounts, Susan Hirt Hagen — “Susie” to those who knew and loved her — was a singular woman.
Hagen passed away June 13 at the age of 79; a memorial service on the grounds is set for 1 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy.
Hagen was the daughter of H.O. Hirt the co-founder of Erie Insurance. Hagen herself served on the company’s board of directors for 34 years and had an “indelible influence” in shaping the Fortune 500 company, CEO Terry Cavanaugh said in a statement after her passing.
“Her conviction, compassion and intellect helped to form the very fabric of [Erie Insurance’s] culture,” he said. “Susan will be missed by so many within the [Erie Insurance] family, our community and beyond.”
Indeed, her impact and “philanthropic spirit,” as Cavanaugh put it, went far beyond Erie Insurance. A lifelong Chautauquan, Hagen “lived and breathed everything we do,” President Tom Becker said.
“She felt a commitment to this place and, not unlike the ways she thought about ideas, she insisted that we fulfill our end of that relationship as well,” he said.
Dedicated to the 10:45 a.m. lecture platform (at which she could often be seen, knitting needles in hand) Hagen created an endowed lecture fund and personally financed the visits of speakers such as David McCullough, Fareed Zakaria and Ken Burns, whose entire week of programming in 2014 she underwrote.
But perhaps Hagen’s most physical investment in Chautauqua, a living memorial to her life and work, is the Hagen-Wensley House, the facility that program guests call home during their time at Chautauqua Institution.
Originally the Wensley House, the building was constructed in 1881 and “stood in poor conditions for many years,” The Chautauquan Daily reported in 2011. That changed with Hagen, who announced a gift to the Chautauqua Foundation that resulted in a full reconstruction.
“She poured her heart and soul into that project,” said Geof Follansbee, vice president and CEO of the Chautauqua Foundation. “There was an absolute care she took to ensure that it would be a home, a place that made Chautauqua proud and make a statement to our guests. … She was invested in Chautauqua being a national platform. She wanted speakers of the highest regard to be here, and she wanted to make sure that they had the kind of experience, when they came, that they would want to come back.”
More than anything, Follansbee said, Hagen was a women who believed in the possibilities of Chautauqua.
“I never heard Susie talk about the limitations of Chautauqua,” Follansbee said. “She was always about what we did and we could do.”
She was a passionate person, Becker said, and a person whose friendship he will miss.
“[Her] engagement with life was never ordinary. She pushed and thought deeply and cared a lot but she also had a lot of fun,” he said. “Life was something to really engage with. She didn’t waste much time. I don’t think she wasted any time. She was a model Chautauquan, and had that sort of sense of aspiration she kept with her all the time, how to make things better.”