Mayor’s hometown roots run deep, as does her commitment to city’s people

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published July 1, 2011


EASTPOINTE — It’s a sunny Saturday morning in June, and Suzanne Pixley is on her way to Eastern Market with friend Sue Young. It’s sort of a tradition with them — they go to Eastern Market, pick up some flowers, then on the way home they stop by On The Rise, a bakery run by ex-cons who learned baking and pastry-making skills while behind bars.

Being in a place run by rehabbed prisoners doesn’t startle Pixley. She’s been going there for a while now and knows many of the men who work there by name.

“She doesn’t just listen; she actually helps people,” said Young, 61. “She brings them numbers and tells them places that can help. I don’t know if it is because she was a nurse, or because she is so well-educated, or because she’s traveled all over the world or because she is a mother, but she is so down-to-earth and cares for everyone she meets.”

Hometown girl

Pixley is the energetic and outgoing 70-year-old mayor of Eastpointe.

Her résumé is exhaustive: earning a master’s degree from the University of Michigan in just nine months; working as the head nurse in trauma units around the country; board member for the Suburbs Alliance, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and the Michigan Municipal League; president of the Eastpointe Historical Society; commissioner of the Macomb County Historical Commission; member of the local rotary club and chairman of Eastpointe’s Community Chest Forum, the Southeast Macomb Sanitary District and the South Macomb Disposal Authority.

But her success and titles aren’t what defines her.

Pixley was born in January 1941 at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Mount Clemens. Her upbringing was modest. She lived on her grandfather’s farm in Eastpointe at Stephens and Grove for the first year of her life.

“My grandfather had given each one of his kids a lot, and my father built our house on it,” she said. “Next door to me on one side was my dad’s aunt — my grandmother’s sister — and on the other side was my grandfather, and behind me was my mom’s parents.”

Pixley, one of four siblings, grew up surrounded by family and gardens.

“When I was a kid, East Detroit was still farmland. It wasn’t farmed except for the gardens that we had. But we had enough gardens — we fed everybody, I swear,” she said. “We had one garden that covered the whole lot next to us. It went all the way from Grove Street over to Dale. Next to my grandma’s, there was one and then my grandfather behind me also had a big garden.”

Most of her grandfather’s land has been divided and sold, except for the lot her childhood home was built on. Pixley lives there now. She grew up in the city and attended East Detroit High School, but as an adult she set up in cities across the country.

She married a dental student after she graduated from nursing school and worked in Ann Arbor at the VA hospital while he finished school there. He was an Air Force officer, and when he graduated, he was assigned to a base in Montana. They were there for four years. Pixley gave birth to her first two children before they left and had two more while there.

“I had four kids under 5, and my husband was (assigned).”

He wasn’t gone long, though. He came home six months later on emergency leave when his mother had a heart attack. It was then that he told her he had found a mass that he hadn’t had time to get checked out while in Vietnam.

Pixley knew a urologist, though, and he agreed to see her husband the next day — the day after that, he was in surgery.

“They told us that every day he waited to have the mass removed took a year off his life, that he could be dead in six months.”

They requested a transfer closer to home and were moved to KI Sawyer in the Upper Peninsula, 500 miles away from Pixley’s family in Eastpointe. Six months turned into two years of radiation, then as quickly as it had come, the cancer left, and for a while, life went back to normal.

Around the world

Pixley, pregnant with her fifth child, was excited when she learned they were to be transferred again — her husband was well now, and the new assignment would be an exciting adventure.

A pregnant Pixley and her four children arrived in Turkey in June of 1971.

“We were under martial law a lot of the time, but my kids weren’t all that old, so they were picked up and taken to school on the military base.”

Pixley says she loved Turkey, and raising children in the foreign country wasn’t too hard.

But having a baby there was a different story. The hospital was a converted apartment building.

“When you went into labor, you were in the living room of an apartment, then when you started to deliver you went upstairs to the delivery room, which was the kitchen of the apartment above you.”

Problems with the pregnancy didn’t make her too nervous. She had delivered babies before, and by the fifth time around, she was experienced at giving birth. She had had a lot of bleeding, but by the time she arrived at the hospital, it had stopped.

The hospital staff was worried, but they thought if she went into labor, she would be OK. Just in case, though, they had 10 units of blood waiting in the delivery room.

“I get on the stretcher to go have my fifth kid, and as a nurse, I know when you have your fifth you go real fast, and I got stuck in the elevator between the two floors with my husband and a brand-new corpsman.”

The doctor was waiting for her upstairs. The corpsman, or nurse aide, tried to assure her everything would be just fine. He’d never delivered a baby before, but he had just completed six weeks of training during which he saw an instructional movie on delivery. Everything would be just fine.

Pixley wasn’t as sure, and the ghost-white expression that had crept over her husband’s face didn’t help. She had delivered women before with “abruptio placentae,” or placental abruption, the problem that caused the bleeding.

She remembers the doctor calling down the elevator shaft to her. He asked her if she wanted him to come down through the hatch at the top of the elevator. It would be risky. The force of the jump onto the top of the cart could cause a chain to snap and the elevator to fall. Pixley didn’t want to take the risk.

“He said, ‘OK Suzanne, you know your body. How much sooner are you going to have this baby?’ And I said, ‘Probably within the next four minutes.’”

The elevator would have to be manually raised with a pulley system. Just before the four-minute mark hit, they were able to pull the elevator up enough to get Pixley out and into the delivery room.

One minute later, her daughter was born.

The next year saw another turbulent life change for the Pixley family — divorce. Alone, she headed back to the United States with her five young children. She wanted to come home to her family here in Eastpointe, but her youngest daughter, still an infant, had severe asthma and the doctors recommended a dry climate.

“I put three cities in a hat: Tucson, Phoenix and Albuquerque. And I pulled out Albuquerque, so we moved there.”

Coming home again

Looking back, Pixley says it wasn’t the smartest of smart decisions. Her mother was constantly worried about their welfare, and it was difficult being a full-time working mom of five young children without any family to help.

They lived there for two years.

“My mother was up here and her blood pressure went sky-high because she was so worried, so I moved back up here just to keep my mother happy.”

Back in Eastpointe, Pixley decided to go back to school, and 18 months later, she had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in health care education from U of M. She started work on her Ph.D. there as well and made it up through her dissertation, but by that time, she said, tuition was just too high and school wasn’t her No. 1 job.

“My kids were teenagers, and they were my first responsibility, so I decided to wait.”

Shortly after putting school on hold, Pixley was offered a job as a supervisor in the cardiovascular surgical units at Texas Methodist Hospital in Houston. It was a great opportunity for her, and the schools there were good, so she packed up the kids and headed south.

She stayed in Houston until after her kids had all graduated and moved on to college; by that time, she too had moved on: first to the position of head nurse in a neuro-trauma unit at a nearby hospital, then to a position investigating insurance fraud for a medical insurance company.

When she left the insurance company in 1990, it was for a much less prestigious job with less pay, but it did offer her a schedule she liked. As a travel nurse she would work for three months, then have one month of vacation, not to mention the chance to travel and nurse in hospitals across the country.

Her mother’s health had started to decline, and Pixley took the job, so she could spend her month off caring for her mother.

“I ended up buying a freezer, coming up, cooking her food and putting it in the freezer, so she would have enough soup and other stuff to last while I was away.”

Pixley’s two brothers lived nearby, but they were unable to provide the care she thought her mom needed, so when a position at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak opened up after she had been on a travel assignment there, she snapped it up.

Pixley left Beaumont in 1999 to provide 24-hour care for her mother, who died in November of that year.

She found work at another local hospital, and in 2000, she joined the Eastpointe Beautification Commission. Gardening had always been a passion, and surrounded by other gardeners the passion grew.

“I wanted to become a master gardener,” said Pixley, who couldn’t get Monday evenings off for the class, but had made up her mind that she wanted to do it.

“So I said, ‘I will just live on a widow’s pension. It’s hardly a pittance of money, but I figure if I grew up poor, I could do it again.”

Pixley says this was not one of her smarter decisions either, but she doesn’t regret it. In her new free time, she was able to become a master gardener, write a book, “Eastpointe,” on the history of the city and help fix up Halfway School House.

Serving the people

In 2005, she decided to run for City Council, and two years later, she ran for mayor. Her mayoral term is up this year, but she hasn’t said if she plans on running yet. Right now, she’s concentrating on the immediate needs of residents.

Last March, she served lunches for Meals on Wheels and plans to do it again.

“I think it’s important to get out there and into the community, and talk to people who are homebound and unable to have their voice heard otherwise,” Pixley said.

On Wednesdays, she visits Eastpointe’s St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church for its Family Supper. There she talks with downtrodden residents.

“We have a lot of people in Eastpointe who, by no fault of their own, do not have jobs,” she said. “And sometimes, I just think they need someone to talk to, someone to listen to their problems and concerns.”

Pixley also spends time talking with the seniors who attend the dinner on a weekly basis. A few times a year, she spends the afternoon cooking the meal for dinner that night, and about once a month, she helps out serving the dinner.

Kirstin Blackburn runs the community dinner at St. Gabriel’s. She says Pixley has literally changed the lives of some of the people that attend the weekly dinner.

“She comes to the Family Supper as a fellow citizen and resident of Eastpointe, not as the mayor. Sometimes she’s been working all day and hasn’t had time to catch a bite to eat, so she’s hungry, too. All our guests, whether they are seniors and residents in the city or the homeless who she recognizes from the streets, get a big Suzanne smile and she genuinely takes an interest in their lives,” Blackburn said.

There, everyone knows her as Suzanne, the hard worker and genuine friend, always willing to lend a helping hand and always able to find the time to listen to someone in need.