Susan Wagle could have been knocked down, out, or spun around in circles any number of times, according to her speech on Thursday. But instead, she's soared above it, rising to be the Kansas Senate President and overcoming obstacles and challenges along the way.
That was the message from the 11th annual Profiles of Women in Government Lecture Series on Thursday at Pittsburg State's Overman Student Center on Thursday. The theme of her speech, titled "Soaring on Clipped Wings," was evident from the very beginning.
"I've often felt like a bird with a clipped wing," Wagle said. "Life is much more difficult than people would admit. Everyone can expect to face broken dreams, plans gone awry, and unexpected challenges."
Wagle spent most of her time at the podium explaining the number of challenges she has faced along the way.
Perhaps the most striking was that, according to a diagnosis in the mid 1990s, she shouldn't even have been alive.
Wagle, then a state representative, was diagnosed with an incurable, final stage form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Wagle told her church and spoke about her diagnosis before the Kansas House. She credits the power of prayer — as evidenced by the thousands of cards she received from concerned Kansas residents and those in her church — with a "miraculous" disappearance of the cancer before any sort of treatment had begun.
"That was more than a clipped wing. It was a near-death experience," Wagle said. "It made us recalculate our values, and which direction we were going."
Her journey through her past challenges included an early divorce, as well as restarting her college degree after that point.
"I had no money, no profession — wings clipped," she said.
Later, after marrying her husband Tom, she began to move into the real estate business, and faced more challenges, with a number of legislative changes in real estate threatening their livelihood. It forced the two to restructure their business just to keep afloat.
Another amazing story was a tale of termite extermination gone bad from the 1980s, with the Wagles eventually forced out of their home around Christmas 1984, moving in with a sister, and fighting numerous court battles over the toxic chemical that contaminated their home.
Years after that, Wagle was approached by friends to run for an open seat with no incumbents in her district. After originally declining, she eventually accepted the challenge and ran for state representative, winning in 1990. She would rise to be Speaker Pro Tem in 1994 before the diagnosis and disappearance of her cancer in 1995/1996.
In 2000, she was elected to the state Senate. She ran for Senate President in 2008, but lost ("Wings clipped," she said.) before winning the Senate Presidency in 2012.
"Legislating is a very intensive process. Emotions run high, and it can be confrontational. That's why one of the first things I did when I became Senate President was get rid of the space underneath the door to my office, so people can't hear what is going on outside. We sealed it, because we didn't want those conversations to be heard," she said.
In her conclusion, Wagle noted the opportunities available to this generation that weren't available to generations past, and called on students in the audience to always be an optimist.