It was their dear friends Ed and Elaine Keating who first brought Ringling College of Art and Design to the attention of Susan and Roy Palmer, something for which Susan said she will always be grateful.
“The first event we ever went to (in the late 1980s) was the Trustee Scholar Luncheon, which was held in the parking lot off of U.S. 41. There was no other place to hold an event back then,” Susan recalled. “I remember there were five Trustee Scholars and we came away so impressed with those students that we knew we had to become involved.”
Susan and her husband, Roy, who passed away in 2017, lived in Chicago before settling on the Gulf Coast in 1987. Though she says that she and Roy lived like gypsies for much of their married life, traveling around the country and the world, they finally made Sarasota their home. After an extensive, four-year renovation, the Palmers settled at Es Ca Bay, an estate designed by Thomas Reed Martin that Susan calls her “dream house.” It was originally built for a Chicago spinster who was a former Ringling School of Art and Design student.
The Keatings introduced the Palmers to then-Ringling President Arland Christ-Janer, better known to his friends as CJ. “We fell in love with CJ and learned there was a tremendous need for scholarships. Then, as we got more involved, we learned there was no endowment, and not much of a campus, other than the Keating Center and a few other buildings. … There was so much that needed to be done,” Susan said.
“Roy was a great believer in education. We both felt very strongly that we wanted to contribute to scholarships, but CJ’s wish list at the time was for help with the school’s infrastructure,” Susan said. On the campus today, you will find the Palmer Quadrangle (student residences) and a group study room on the first floor of the Goldstein Library. There is also the Susan Palmer Fitness Center, named for Susan in honor of her many contributions.
While the infrastructure of the campus was important at the time, it was scholarships that both Roy and Susan believed were the lifeblood of the institution. “There was nothing back then in terms of scholarships, nothing. And we have built and built and built over the years to where there are a considerable number today. Scholarships are crucial if we are to continue to attract the caliber of talented students that has made the school what it is today,” Susan said.
It was Arland Christ-Janer who introduced Susan to Diane Roskamp, and theirs became a lifelong friendship. Diane firmly believed that Ringling College needed to start hosting some fundraising events, and CJ believed that Susan and Diane were the team to make that happen. “What we ended up doing in 1997 was hosting The Night of the Red Dragon, which was the school’s first scholarship fundraiser. It eventually evolved into An Evening at the Avant-Garde,” Susan said.
Susan was also instrumental in establishing the Avant-Garde Scholarship. “It began in 2008, when I chaired the event,” she said. “We raised enough money for the endowment of what is today known as the Avant-Garde Scholarship, which is given annually to a junior based on his or her volunteerism and what has given back to the school and fellow students. That scholarship,” Susan said, “led to establishing the Emerging Service Leaders Award, scholarships given to 10 sophomores annually to recognize exemplary service.”
Dr. Larry R. Thompson joined Ringling College of Art and Design as its new president in 1999. Susan describes his contributions to the College as nothing short of phenomenal. “He will give anybody his time and listen to what they have to say. He is a wonderful listener and an even more wonderful doer and achiever,” she said. “He has drummed it into all of our heads that Ringling College is going to be the pre-eminent art and design college in the world. And you know, it is getting there. It really is.”
Susan has served as a trustee of Ringling College since 2005. “My first board meeting was on the day that we approved the new Ringling College Museum Campus, which includes the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College,” she said. “That is why underwriting and naming a gallery at the Museum was so important to me. It has been a part of my entire tenure on the Board of Trustees, and is part of my legacy here.”
“Today, I feel just incredulous about the College and its students. The growth here is just off the charts. I don’t know what is happening at other art and design colleges, but here at Ringling College, the future for our students is unlimited.”
By Gayle Guynup
Photo by Barbara Banks