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Wauwatosa Lions help visually-impaired Alaskan woman to Irish Fest

'Cruisin' Susan' has journeyed from Anchorage to Milwaukee for four years

Aug. 20, 2013

Her name is Susan Gillett, but Wauwatosa Lions and Irish Fest performers know her as Cruisin' Susan. She lives up to the name, this being her fourth year coming down to Milwaukee from Anchorage, Alaska.

Beside taking the long journey each year, another thing sets Gillett apart from Irish Fest attendees: She's nearly completely blind.

The Wauwatosa Lions have been helping Gillett with her Irish Fest experience for the last four years by picking her up from the airport, showing her to her hotel, driving her to the festival and spending the day with her, helping her get from stage to stage.

"It's the highlight of my life," Gillett said, on her annual visits to Irish Fest. "I look forward to it all year and as long as I keep getting invited, I'm going to keep coming back."

Irish connections from Alaska to Milwaukee

Why Gillett makes the trip to Milwaukee each year and how she got hooked up with the Wauwatosa Lions is a long story involving her love of poetry, a cruise in Florida, a friend's love of Irish music and Lions Clubs throughout the nation.

Having vision problems since she was very young and a passion for reading, Gillett said she was lucky she had a short nose. In middle and high school, she would read by holding books as close as possible to her face, oftentimes pressed to her nose. That love of reading and a hearing aid helped her get straight As through high school and college.

She eventually landed a job as a medical transcriptionist at a hospital in Anchorage, where her love of reading and music would bring her to a concert that changed her life.

Gillett loves poetry and finds most of her new rhymed poetry through folk songs and music. One day a friend called her, asking if she wanted to see an Irish folk musician named Seamus Kennedy, who was in town for the night. She agreed and they left to see Kennedy.

Gillett wasn't having a good time for most of the show. The acoustics were bad and she couldn't hear most of what Kennedy was saying.

It wasn't until a local bluegrass musician sang a duet with Kennedy that she heard his voice and fell in love with his music. The next weekend her and her friends took a cab to see Kennedy. They each bought all 10 of his albums.

She followed his career, flying with a friend to see him in California twice and was invited to go on one of his sponsored cruises in Florida. Another Irish singer she met, Fiona Molloy, agreed to help her get around the ship. Molloy was living in Wisconsin at the time and said idly that Gillett should go to Irish Fest.

Gillett wanted dearly to make it, but once again needed someone to help her get around. Since she's had help from Lions clubs her whole life, getting free eye surgery in college, a book reader in Anchorage and help in high school, she searched for Lions around the area, asking if they'd help.

She eventually emailed the Wauwatosa Lions, who thought her request was unusual but were more than happy to help her out.

Knights of sight

Lions Club members work specifically with blind and visually-impaired people after being charged by Helen Keller in 1925 to become what she called knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.

Jim Boyle, a Wauwatosa Lion, went to pick Gillett up at the airport. They had no cellphones and had never met each other, but he puzzled out which plane she was coming in and waited for her. The plane unloaded its passengers, none of which looked blind. Boyle asked three people, getting yelled at by one, if they were Gillett before finally meeting up with her.

The Lions benefit from Gillett's trips as well. Besides making a monetary contribution, Gillett comes loaded with a fully personalized schedule, crafted by a friend of hers who works in public radio. Every hour of the three-day festival is mapped out. Terry Winkler, a Wauwatosa Lion, said that he's never had more fun than when he takes Gillett to the festival. He used to only see the big stages, but now he can attend the smaller venues and enjoys them much more.

The Wauwatosa Lions and Gillett have formed a friendship over the years. She regularly sends them emails about her adventures and each year writes them a Christmas poem. In an email to Winkler after her first Irish Fest, she wrote "Words just fail me when I try to think of some new and remarkable way to convey my gratitude for all you did to ensure that my first Irish Fest was enjoyable!"

To Gillett, music is her rainbow and Irish Fest is the pot of gold at the end.

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