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Carmen Grove Suminski died Wednesday, July 5, 2023, at her daughter’s home in Cashton, WI, of congestive heart failure.A close-up of Carmen (seated) with Amanda standing behind her and Carter standing to her left. Amanda has her arms draped around each of them. They are all smiling at the camera. Carmen was a long-time employee of the School for the Blind, from 1969-1973 and then again from 1991 until she retired as superintendent in 2013. Carmen’s impact on the School is still felt today. She was at the helm during its transition from a residential school to one serving students and clients through outreach and short-term programming, when its name changed to North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind, and during its centennial celebration in 2008 when she compiled a book, Recollections of 100 Years of Excellence. She is fondly remembered by current staff and former employees, former students and clients, fellow Lions, and the many other vision professionals she worked with around the nation. We are so grateful for her leadership and her caring professionalism.

At her mother’s funeral, Amanda Schultz Garcia eulogized, “To know my mom was to know me, and to know me was to know my mom.” Even though she held many titles throughout her life – teacher, Director of Education, Superintendent, President of COSB – Amanda’s mom, Carmen Suminski, was, first and foremost, mom. While growing up in Arizona and then North Dakota, Amanda remembers her mom taking “an extreme interest in me,” Amanda laughs. “If I was a part of it, she volunteered, whether it was soccer, theater, music, or school.” 

Carmen is remembered as someone who was extremely dedicated to her job and “always working,” Amanda remembers. “Even before you could check your email on your phone, she would be writing letters and notes in the evening.” But family always came first. “She was very family-oriented,” remembers Ken Dockter, a longtime employee of the School for the Blind. “She loved her parents, loved Amanda and her grandson Carter. She always talked about her cousins.” Amanda concurs, “There was always someone she was taking care of.” 

Even towards the end of her life, Amanda remembers the care Carmen showed towards the nurses who were supposed to be taking care of her. “She wanted to know her nurses’ names, everything about them.” Indeed, Carmen “loved a good visit,” Amanda says. “She always kept in touch with people, loved Facebook, loved talking to people on the phone.” Marje Kaiser, who served as the Superintendent of the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, says, “I don’t think she ever met a stranger.” Like so many people in Carmen’s life, Marje is grateful for the friendship she shared with Carmen. “Some people make a big impact on your life, and Carmen was one of those for me,” Marje says.

Carmen’s Work Family

A young Carmen stands in front of the main entrance at the School for the Blind in Grand Forks circa 1070.Naturally, Amanda grew up interested in her mom’s work. “I was proud of my mom and her job at the School for the Blind,” Amanda remembers. “I thought her job was really cool and important.” There is no doubt that Carmen loved working at the School for the Blind. From 1969 – 1973, as a newly minted teacher, she taught high school courses at the School. She left North Dakota for a while, and from 1973 – 1991, she worked as a rehabilitation teacher and public school teacher in Greeley, Colorado, and Phoenix, Arizona. But her home state came calling, and in 1991, Carmen, along with Amanda, moved back to North Dakota when she accepted the job of Director of Education at the School for the Blind in Grand Forks. “I remember saying ‘We got the job!’” Amanda says, when the School called to offer Carmen the position. 

Carmen was glad to be back home in North Dakota. She had grown up in Adams, graduating from there in 1964, and attended Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, graduating in 1968 with an education degree. In 1991, when Carmen and Amanda moved back to her home state, her parents, Clifford and Beatha, still lived in the house she grew up in, and many weekends, after a full week of work and school, Carmen and Amanda would travel to Adams to spend time with her parents and help them with whatever needed done. 

Carmen considered her colleagues her family as well. “My mom established friendships with many of the staff. She really thought a lot of them. We would go to baby showers and graduation parties and weddings of staff and teachers’ kids,” Amanda remembers. Cindy Williams, who started as secretary at the School in 2002 and now works as the Coordinator of Student Programs, admires “the way she ran the school and let her softer side shine through.” Many colleagues felt that Carmen encouraged them in their career, including Cindy. “When I told her I was leaving my job as secretary to go back to school to be a TVI [Teacher of the Visually Impaired], she was sad and proud,” Cindy remembers. “She often said, ‘Cindy, share your story,’ and had me speak at places like her Lions Club.”

Amanda remembers how her mom “would know personal things,” about her staff and the people she met through her work at the national level, “but it only made them better colleagues.” Amanda explains, “She would never talk about people; she would just care about them.” Amanda has tried to replicate that ability to intertwine her social life and her professional life herself. “Friendly yet maintained a level of professionalism – my mom was able to balance that so well,” Amanda explains. 

Mary Verlinde, who was encouraged by Carmen to apply for her current position at the School and hired by her, calls Carmen a “family-first” person, but “family” didn’t just mean relatives. “She always was looking for new ways that our services and school could make things better for our students and their families,” Mary says. When Mary traveled to a conference with Carmen and ended up with bronchitis, she saw firsthand how Carmen cared for her family. “She was like a mother hen to me! She made sure I had everything I needed before she set out” each morning, Mary remembers. Carmen’s counterpart in South Dakota, Marje Kaiser, ended up traveling to many of the same conferences and meetings that Carmen did, and they sometimes shared a room. “Carmen always had coffee and always had cheese,” Marje remembers. “She came prepared!” 

Even though they looked nothing alike, Carmen and Marje were often mistaken for each other. They were both from theCarmen and Marje stand next to each other smiling at the camera. Carmen is holding a plaque in front of her and Marje's left hand holds onto Carmen's arm. Dakotas, they were both female superintendents (two of the first in the nation), and they were both taking on leadership roles on a national level even though they were from small schools and small states. “Carmen had the hands-on experience of being a teacher, and she never forgot that experience when she got into leadership roles,” Marje explains. “She cared about her staff, and she had an outgoing personality. If she was in a group, she made a point of meeting people,” and people responded to that. “She was an easy person to be friends with,” Marje says. 

One year at the Annual Meeting of the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky, Carmen and Marje decided to play into the Dakota confusion. They were paired up to introduce sessions, so they bought matching jackets – black and white houndstooth – and played a game where they bantered about what each state offered. “She would say North Dakota has Medora, I would say South Dakota has the Black Hills, and we went back and forth like that. I don’t know if it straightened anything out, but it sure was fun,” Marje remembers. 

Typical Carmen

In 1994, Carmen was named the superintendent of the School for the Blind, when Michael Graham left to become the state administrator for Vocational Rehabilitation in Idaho. Those first few years as superintendent were difficult, as the School was transitioning from residential to one that specialized in outreach and short-term programming. Major changes were in store, including the elimination of many positions that were no longer needed. Looking back, leading the School through that time “could not have been easy,” Ken Dockter says. But under Carmen’s leadership, the School soon thrived again after finding its footing with the new focus.

While this transition was hard on staff, students, and families, it also gave North Dakota the chance to shine, and under Carmen stands on the right side of a group of 3. Dr. Phil Hatlen stands on the left and Dr. Ralph Bartley, who is holding an award, stands in the middle. All are wearing dress clothes and are smiling at the camera.Carmen’s watch, it did. North Dakota was one of the first states to offer services in a short-term program and outreach model, and Carmen was proud of that and of how dedicated and accommodating the staff was. People around the nation began to take note of North Dakota and what it was doing at its newly named “North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind.” Lanna Slaby, who was hired by Carmen, remembers that “Carmen was involved in many professional organizations involving visual impairments.” But, Lanna notes, Carmen wasn’t content to just be a member and would often serve on their boards. “She was willing to step up and do things,” Ken remembers. “She didn’t sit back and let things go by her. She was in the mix of things.” 
In 2009, Carmen was appointed to also be the Superintendent of the School for the Deaf. While this dual role surely added stress and additional work, Carmen made the most of it. “She would do things like bake muffins for the alumni group,” Marje says. While that may not be a typical task for the superintendent, it was typical Carmen. She had a “welcoming heart,” Marje says. 

Carmen was also incredibly grateful. “She’d credit everyone else with what she was able to accomplish,” Amanda says, and wasCarmen receiving the two blue clay vases at her retirement party in 2013. She is standing behind a table with her hands around one of them to pick it up. “so proud” of her work at the School for the Blind. When Carmen retired in 2013, she was gifted two blue pottery vases handmade at Muddy Waters Clay Center in Grand Forks. “Those blue vases were the first thing she put up when she moved,” Amanda says. “She was so proud and pleased” to have worked at the School for the Blind. “While I eulogized about how to know Carmen was to know me and to know me was to know Carmen,” Amanda says, “I would also say that to know Carmen was to know her love for the School for the Blind, and to know the School for the Blind was to know Carmen.”

We at NDVS/SB couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Carmen, for your dedication to and love of the School. We are who we are, where we are, and what we are because of you.