Lives To Remember

Susan Hager | 1944-2008

Public relations firm owner Susan Hager, seen in 2007, liked to glam it up at parties.
Public relations firm owner Susan Hager, seen in 2007, liked to glam it up at parties. (Kimberly Varner/Courtesy Family)
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By Phuong Ly
Wednesday, December 31, 2008; 3:34 PM

Sometime in June 2001, Karen Cassiday began noticing that something was terribly wrong with her boss. Every week, Susan Hager slipped out of work for a doctor's appointment. She spent some afternoons napping, her petite, thin body stretched out on the purple sofa in her corner office. One day, Susan couldn't even muster her usual smile.

Finally, Karen approached Susan, then 56. What was going on?

In a quiet, resigned voice, Susan delivered the news to her executive assistant: She was dying from polycystic kidney disease, a genetic illness that had covered her kidneys with cysts. She had put her name on a list for a transplant, but it was unlikely that she could get one anytime soon. Her daughter, Elizabeth Finley, and Susan's siblings couldn't donate a kidney -- they were in danger of getting the same disease. Susan's husband, Eric Hager, had been tested, but he wasn't a match.

Karen, then 48, had worked at Hager Sharp, the D.C. public relations firm that Susan owned, for just 2 1/2 years. But she couldn't imagine working for anyone other than Susan, who was so vibrant and nurturing, and whose frequent laughter rang through the halls.

"The way she was, she made you want to achieve more," says Karen, now the firm's administrator. "I appreciated the type of boss she was. I really didn't want to lose her."

So while Susan was away on summer vacation, Karen went to Washington Hospital Center to be tested to see if she could donate her own kidney. Karen's kidneys turned out to be a perfect match. Her only fear was that she would not be able to give her husband, Fred, or her two teenage children a kidney if they needed one later. But donation programs make sure that living donors and their immediate family members go to the top of the transplant list. With that assurance, Fred told Karen that the decision was up to her.

When Susan got back to the office in September, Karen went over the mail and upcoming appointments. Then, she told her boss to mark down Nov. 1. That would be the day of the kidney transplant.

At first, Karen says, Susan looked bewildered. Then she screamed and hugged Karen again and again.

The morning of the transplant, Karen remembers, she and Susan couldn't stop giggling and making silly comments about their hospital gowns. Another patient in the busy pre-surgery room looked over at them and said loudly, "I'll have whatever they're on."

After the surgery, Karen woke up in a hotel-like VIP suite, where diplomats and rich patients from overseas stayed. Susan, who was recovering on a different floor in a typical hospital room, had made the arrangements as a surprise.

It was always Susan's style to be the giver of gifts, not the receiver. Her generosity was legendary at Hager Sharp, the 40-employee firm that she'd helped found in 1973. To Susan, every occasion deserved an office celebration -- upcoming weddings and babies, birthdays and date-of-hire anniversaries. Those who reached their 10th anniversary with Hager Sharp received an all-expenses-paid trip designed by Susan. Someone who liked theater, for example, would be sent to New York, with a stay at the Plaza Hotel and Broadway tickets.

The gifts went beyond things of monetary value. When Darcy Sawatzki, a senior account supervisor, gave birth to her first child, Susan presented her with a silver rattle from Tiffany's that had been her own daughter's. Darcy, who started at Hager Sharp as a 21-year-old intern in 1999, says that Susan made her feel like a part of a family, not a minion.

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