By Holly South
Susan Clarke Schaar had to cancel her plans to attend the recent Spring Business Meeting of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries.
She wasn’t too disappointed though: Schaar, who serves as the clerk, the chief administrative officer of the Senate of Virginia, was being honored by the Richmond YWCA.
Each year the YWCA honors eight women who are community leaders in categories ranging from education to government to volunteerism, and Schaar was named a 2019 Outstanding Woman, “an amazing honor for me.”
“The Outstanding Women Awards embodies YWCA’s commitment to engage, develop and honor women leaders whose work helps make our community stronger,” Linda S. Tissiere, YWCA Richmond’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. The award recognizes women in the Richmond area who have made significant contributions in their careers, and, said Schaar, “I really never imagined that I would be one of those women selected. It’s very rewarding to be recognized for doing a job I have loved for many years.”
“We are so proud of her!” said Chief Deputy Clerk Tara Perkinson, who nominated her boss for the award. “Susan sets an example of professionalism and fairness that is respected by members of both political parties, her colleagues from around the nation, and all who know her. Susan has innovated and upgraded policies and procedures to ensure the efficient and effective operations of the Senate to benefit both the legislature and the citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia."
Legislative work was not her on Schaar's radar when she graduated from college. She was prepared to teach history, but in the process of interviewing for positions, learned that schools wanted a “two-for one: They also wanted you to coach football or basketball.”
Through a family member’s connections, she instead became involved in Mills Godwin’s gubernatorial campaign. A role in his transition office led to a temporary session job and then a full-time position with the General Assembly. “I decided to stay through one redistricting and this is my fifth. … It’s fascinating to watch the process.”
In addition to her 45 years of service and leadership to the Senate, Schaar, elected clerk in 1990, is also a former ASLCS president and NCSL staff chair. She has been honored twice before by ALSCS, as the recipient of the Legislative Staff Achievement Award and Joseph A. Beek Distinguished Service Award. She is also a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
“Having worked for Susan for the past 13 years I have seen the great impact she has had on so many people," said Maryann Horch, senior systems analyst for the Senate. "She has been a role model and mentor for so many: staff, colleagues, and the numerous students who have been through the Senate Page Leadership Program.”
Schaar distills her experience into three pieces of advice she gives to anyone interviewing with her office:
- ”You have to have a sense of humor, which includes laughing at yourself—you’ve got to know how to break the tension.”
- ”Be flexible. Things change in five minutes. Whatever to-do list you had for the day goes out the window the minute you walk into the office.”
- “You have to like people. In this job, you deal with people from all walks of life, from the very, very poor to the Queen of England.”
And that’s not a hypothetical: Schaar actually met the queen in 2007, which she considers one of the highlights of her career. Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to the U.S., in 1957, included stops in Jamestown and Williamsburg. She was invited back 50 years later to attend the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Jamestown and to address a joint assembly of the legislature, where Schaar met her. (She has also had tea with a visiting Margaret Thatcher.)
“In all the years I have known her, she is always working to give back,” Horch said. “I remember one time, after our reconvened session, everyone was spent after a long day. A family came in to look at the Senate chamber, and without batting an eye she stopped to speak with them about their visit, showing them around the chamber and encouraging them to take photos and ask questions. That's when I thought, ‘she’s always working, but she loves this and wants to share it with everyone.’ ”
Holly South is a policy specialist and NCSL's liason to ASLCS.