Facilitator Profile – Susan McBeth – Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

Susan McBeth

Susan McBeth

Given her love of books, travel and fun, Susan McBeth’s career is a trifecta of perfection. As the founder and owner of Adventure by the Book, she organizes events – anything from high tea or happy hour to exotic trips domestic and abroad – that connect readers with authors.

And fortunately for San Diego State University’s College of Extended Studies, McBeth is partnering with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to bring her special brand of magic to Osher Edventures – members-only outings for the Institute’s already adventure-prone students (age 50 and better).

McBeth is a two-time SDSU alum who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in business administration (with distinction in management, a minor in German, and membership in Phi Beta Kappa and the Mortar Board Honor Society), and a master’s in comparative literature.

She admits to being “ultra-competitive” as well as having “compulsive organizational skills.” Throw in openness to serendipity, and you have all the ingredients for handcrafting the perfect career.

McBeth worked as an events coordinator for over 20 years, nearly five of which were spent as director of marketing and events at Warwick’s Bookstore in La Jolla. It was there that she met Frances Mayes, author of the wild best-seller Under the Tuscan Sun. The rest is history. But first a little backstory.

What kinds of events were you planning prior to your current career?
My entire adult life, I have been drawn to organizing events, whether as a volunteer or professionally. When my son’s baseball team needed equipment, I organized a baseball booster club and held unique events to raise funds. My favorite was a Halloween carnival. We “borrowed” a vacant retail space and charged community members a few dollars to go through the house, decorated by one of our parents who owned lots of fabulous Halloween decorations and props. Wal-Mart generously matched our proceeds, and we ended up with several thousand dollars, a fun event for our community, and even extended the event for several weekends due to popular demand.

Professionally, I organized medical conferences for a period of time, but that was never my passion, and I only did it because I kind of fell into it and was recruited for my organizational skills. When I had three job offers after the first event because I was told it was the best-run conference the doctors had ever attended, that was when I thought that perhaps this was a profession I could pursue in a field that was more to my liking than working with cadavers.

When did you first become aware of your “compulsive organizational skills”?
Ha ha, people have made fun of me my whole life for this. I organize my spice racks alphabetically, and my friends, even now, find it fun to come into our home and mix them up. I of course have my books filed alphabetically by author last name and have done so as long as I can remember.

What transpired at that life-changing meeting with Frances Mayes at Warwick’s?
I told her that I lived vicariously through her books because I had never traveled to Tuscany, and through her lyrical prose, she takes readers away on adventures they may never experience on their own. She graciously extended an invitation to visit, although perhaps she was just being the kind person she is, but that got me to thinking, what if we took those figurative adventures that books offer and turned them into literal ones? I shared this brainstorm with her that someday wouldn’t it be fun to organize trips like this, not just for me, but for readers as well. I think she really liked the idea, too, because she surprised me by sending a sign-up sheet around the room and told me that one day if I really launched such a business, that I could start with this list of hers.

(In early 2011, McBeth left Warwick’s. By that summer, she and her first Adventure by the Book group traveled to Tuscany to hobnob with Frances Mayes, visit her hometown of Cortona, sip wine at internationally-renowned author Ferenc Mate’s winery, and tour Siena with bestselling author Dario Castagno, who gave the group an insider’s look at the world-famous Palio horse races.)

Prior to the launch of Adventures by the Book, did these types of events/adventure with authors even exist?
It’s funny that you ask this, because I wondered as well. I had never heard of anyone doing these kinds of events and travels, but I thought that certainly, somewhere, others were doing something similar. But the more I heard back from publishers, publicists, agents, authors, and readers, the more I realized that I was on to filling a void in the book world. I kept hearing over and over the idea was “brilliant” and that finally someone was doing something innovative to connect readers with authors.

When did you first partner with The Osher Institute at SDSU and how did that come about?
My dear friend and mentor, Kathi Diamant, had been teaching for Osher already and heard that they had expanded their program to include Edventures, which were remarkably similar to my Adventures; basically a lecture combined with an experience. The Osher Institute asked me to submit some ideas and they liked the ideas, so that’s how it came about.

What has been your favorite Osher Edventure?
Well, I’ve only done two so far, one to the San Diego Zoo and one on the USS Midway, and both were very special for different reasons. The one to the Zoo was my first and it was special for that reason, but also because I brought in my friend Georgeanne Irvine, who is a remarkable animal advocate, long-time zoo employee and prolific children’s author of animal books. The second to the USS Midway was special not only because of our author, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, who is a brilliant and talented writer and one of San Diego’s treasures, but also my husband, Capt. Michael McBeth, who provided the military component of that Edventure, sharing his 30-plus years of service in the U.S. Navy.

Some favorite Osher Institute moments in general?
One of my favorite moments is when we had a student with visual impairment join us for the San Diego Zoo Edventure. I found myself in awe of her that she couldn’t see, yet she wanted to experience the zoo, and I wanted her to have a multi-sensorial experience, so I made sure she was at the front of the line to pet a camel and to feed a giraffe. When she squealed in delight as the giraffe took food from her hand, I relived that moment over and over in my mind, feeling so blessed that I have a job that I am so passionate about.

As a self-proclaimed lifelong book lover, what’s the first book you remember loving?
I can remember all the way back as a small child when I had a stack of Little Golden Books that I would read and re-read. My absolute favorite was “The Surprise Doll” about a little girl whose father traveled the world and each time he would come back home, he would surprise her with a doll from another country. I adored that book.

What’s in your reading queue right now?
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (which will be an Osher Institute Edventure in summer 2014), What Nora Knew by Linda Yellin, and Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

Given your love of books and authors, do you aspire to write a book?
I not only aspire to write a book, but I am writing one, albeit very slowly given my time constraints. My mother was born during the Nazi era in Germany, and her father was in the German army and spent much of her childhood in a French prison as an American captive. She rarely talked about her childhood because she was fearful how people would react to her as a German, non-Jew, even though she was only a child at the time. But when she was dying of cancer, she spilled a secret fear to me that she would be forgotten because nobody knew anything about her. I made her a promise that I would one day write her story and ensure that she would never be forgotten, so that’s what I am doing.

If Adventures by the Book had a time-travel division, what would be your first adventure?
Oooh, great question, and I can’t believe that I’ve actually thought about this, so the answer comes quickly to mind. It may sound crazy, but I would love to experience walking along the bleak Yorkshire Moors of Wuthering Heights with Emily Bronte. I think it sounds exotic, and dark, and something that I might not do unless inspired by a fabulous book.

How have Osher Institute students inspired you personally?
Personally, I love to learn, and the only reason that I ever hesitated with higher education is because I get too stressed about tests and deadlines. The Osher Institute is such a perfect solution for people like me, and so when I see that so many other Osher students are participating, it is exciting to share those experiences with others who are like-minded.
(There are no tests, grades or exams at the Osher Institute, just the thrill of learning.)

What words of encouragement would you give to those who have yet to pursue their creative dreams or even just take a class at the Osher Institute?
You are asking the right person this question, because it took me until I was in my early 50s to pursue my creative dream. I never really knew what that dream was, but it seemed to unfold step by step until the natural progression led me to creating Adventures by the Book. I hesitated initially because I wondered if I was too close to retirement age to really launch something not only new, but untried, and I am so grateful that my husband gently nudged me to take a leap of faith. So I would say to others to take that leap of faith because life is about the journey, not the destination.

McBeth is also the founder of the SoCal Author Academy, which creates workshops to assist writers in marketing their own books. Listen to her July 2015 interview on KPBS.