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Vic Sussman Dies; Journalist, Farmer

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2004; Page B06

Vic Sussman, 65, journalist, author, weightlifter and organic farmer, died Nov. 22 at George Washington University Hospital after an apparent stroke.

An intensely curious man, Mr. Sussman leapt from pursuit to pursuit over the years, including vegetarianism, powerlifting, recumbent biking and Russian kettlebells. He grew from a rather skinny hippie in college into an enormously robust athlete who liked to enhance his bulk by wearing a black leather trench coat.

Vic Sussman, shown with sons Brendan, left, and Noah, had a fascination with living a slower, more rustic life. He had lived on a farm in Potomac. (Family Photo)

His disposition fluctuated, too. Perhaps the earliest recorded example was the time when, as a teenage disc jockey in Arlington, he broke an Elvis Presley record on air in a fit of disgust and declared the singer "crap." His audience on the country music station was largely approving, although he alienated a few young women.

A freelance writer and humorist at times, he also had some steady employment. He was a reporter and producer at WAMU-FM radio in Washington; an English teacher at Montgomery College; a frequent contributor to The Washington Post's book and magazine sections; a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report; in a slew of Internet-related jobs; and most recently a senior editor for the public radio business program "Marketplace."

In one of his books, "Never Kiss a Goat on the Lips: The Adventures of a Suburban Homesteader" (1981), he described himself and his first wife as typical urban "videots." That is, they spent all their free time watching television. They decided that they had the income and the spirit to change their lifestyle. The book's title came from an incident in which Mr. Sussman's wife bussed the animal after it had eaten poison ivy.

They moved from Washington to a two-acre farm in Potomac, where he became a homesteading organic farmer. "He presses his own apple cider," noted a 1978 article in The Post's Magazine. "He raises goats and uses the milk for yogurt. He operates a homemade solar heater to dry his fruit. His house is heated with wood, which he cuts himself. He delivered his daughter at home. His wife cuts his hair; he cuts hers. He had no television, drives an old pickup truck, runs up to six miles a day and can quote from Oriental philosophers."

Mr. Sussman radiated restlessness and spoke about moving to Vermont for a more rustic ambience. He pointed out, bleakly, that new subdivisions in Potomac had such names as "Fox Chase," "Quail Run" and "Forest Park."

"This isn't possible, though," he said. "Foxes lay dead on the highway -- killed by speeding drivers. The quail are gone, their habitats destroyed by bulldozers scooping out tennis courts. And no forests are here, only new trees still wrapped in burlap."

In short, he said, "We think it stinks."

In Vermont, he lived in a 126-year-old house with a Finnish masonry wood stove and a solar greenhouse. He returned in the mid-1980s, after the fascination wore off.

His other books included "The Vegetarian Alternative" (1978) and "Easy Composting" (1982).

Victor Stephan Sussman was born Nov. 21, 1939, in New York and moved with his family to Northern Virginia when he was 16. He was a graduate of Washington-Lee High School.

He was a deejay at WARL-FM, the country-western radio station in Arlington started by Connie B. Gay. He was called "Vic Stephan, Arlington's red-headed cowboy."

He received bachelor's and a master's degrees in communications from American University in the mid-1960s.

After returning to the Washington area from Vermont, he became interested in a distinctly non-agrarian enterprise: technology and, eventually, the Internet.

From 1986 to 1989, he wrote the "Personal Tech" column, covering computers, audio-video and emerging consumer electronics, for The Post's Magazine. He often began his columns with a self-reflection, as he did with this look at flashlights: "I loved them for their sorcery and Promethean power. They let me read comics under the covers long past my curfew, whip streamers of light across the neighborhood and turn cats' eyes into glowing coals."

At U.S. News & World Report from 1989 to 1996, he wrote cover stories and a wide variety of health, fitness and technology features. He then held administrative titles in a series of Web-related positions at washingtonpost.com (where he helped establish the live-chat format), America Online and Cahner's Business Information.

His work at washingtonpost.com was well-regarded but came to a controversial end, when he was forced out after a personality clash with the editor. Someone plopped a rotten fish into an interoffice envelope -- Mr. Sussman was listed as its last user -- and stored the envelope behind a file cabinet in the editor's office to leave a stench.

Mr. Sussman denied being the culprit. "I'm not that stupid," he told Washingtonian magazine.

Much of his life was spent hunting for a Waldenesque retreat into simplicity, but he sabotaged himself with his own searching nature. In January, he joined "Marketplace" in Los Angeles and called back to his home in Silver Spring after wading in the Pacific Ocean. He decided that he had finally found Mecca.

His marriage to Betsy Millman Sussman ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 16 years, Megin Walsh-Sussman of Silver Spring; two children from his first marriage, Rachel Sussman of Hanover, N.H., and Noah Sussman of New York; and a son from his second marriage, Brendan Sussman of Silver Spring.

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