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'She was a light in a dark place': Carolyn Suman educated, befriended state prison imates – Herald-Mail Media

Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Carolyn Marie Suman, who died on Dec. 14 at the age of 80. Her obituary appeared in The Herald-Mail on Dec. 19.
Carolyn Suman didn’t have any biological children, but she had many sons.
Inmates at the state prison complex south of Hagerstown who were grateful for her role in their education and rehabilitation remained close to her after their release.
“They called her mom,” sister Sheryl Ebersole said. “If she knew someone wanted to change their life, even if they were lifers, she encouraged them.”
Former inmates were welcome at family gatherings such as picnics and the big Christmas Eve celebration that might have as many as 40 people crammed into her home.
Stage, screen and “Roc” sitcom star Charles Dutton, who had served some of his prison time at the complex, once invited Carolyn and her husband, Bill, to one of his Broadway shows.
And former inmates who remained current friends paid their respects after she died.
“I’ve had a couple of them stop by the house to see me after she passed away,” Bill said.
“She was a beacon,” said Lloyd “Pete” Waters, now retired, who worked with her when he was the warden of the Maryland Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Training Center. “She was a light in a dark place.”
Education was “the name of her game,” Pete said.
“She was a very proactive person, a very hands-on person,” he said. “You would see her walking around the institution almost as much as the warden.
“I walked around a lot, and she was always out and about.”
As a teacher and principal at the prisons, Carolyn was both gentle and firm.
“I think she taught them things that their mothers didn’t,” niece Jenel Keller said.
“They knew where they stood with her,” she said. “If she had an opinion, she was going to share it.
“But she was an encourager and compassionate.”
That compassion was also evident in the things she did outside of work, such as volunteering at Hospice of Washington County and serving in the auxiliary at Western Maryland Hospital Center. She put her strong Christian faith into action at Hagerstown’s First Baptist Church and West End Baptist Temple, and she supported missionaries in Haiti and Africa.
But family — including close friends — was number one.
Carolyn adopted animals at the Baltimore Zoo for the many children in the extended family group, for example, and once rented a bus to take them there to see them.
She and Bill hosted game nights, and she would recruit him and other family members to help make cookies, candy and cakes for holidays such as Christmas and Easter.
The couple also provided holiday meals to the residents of Holly Place, an assisted living home for low-income seniors in Hagerstown.
“She always got me into everything she was doing,” Bill said.
“My husband called (her) ‘Sarge,'” Jenel said. “She was always in charge.”
Carolyn was a very giving person, sister Christine Banzhoff said.
“She would find something she was passionate about and lots of other people would get involved in it too,” she said.
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Carolyn grew up one of seven children on her parent’s 43-acre farm on Sterling Road near Williamsport.
They enjoyed a big garden, church, Sunday school and part-time work at McEwens Market, which their father co-owned, on South Potomac Street in Hagerstown.
“Growing up, we knew Carolyn strived to do her best and always had everyone’s best interest at heart,” brother Ralph Sterling said in a note provided by Sheryl. “This was how she lived her life.”
Carolyn graduated from South Hagerstown High School in 1960, and during her freshman year at Frostburg State College, she went for a jaunt that changed her life.
Bill and his buddy were standing in his parents’ front yard when they saw three girls go by in a car. The driver tooted the horn at them. Some sleuthing led to their identities, and Bill took an interest in Carolyn upon learning that she was home from college.
“So I ended up making a date with her, and lo and behold, one led to another and I don’t think I ever dated any other girl after I met her, and I don’t think she was dating anybody else,” Bill said.
They got married on July 7, 1963.
“I never thought I’d ever get anyone like that in my life,” Bill said. “She was fantastic.”
The couple lived on Bower Avenue in Halfway for a few years until they bought a piece of her parents’ land on Sterling Road and built their permanent dream home there.
The only time they were apart was during Bill’s training for his 29 years of service in the U.S. Army Reserves.
They even went to prison together, Sheryl said, tongue in cheek.
Bill was a correctional officer at the Maryland Correctional Institution, from which he retired as a lieutenant after 20 years, and Carolyn was teaching English at South High when he suggested that she apply for an open teaching position at the prison.
It would be a refreshing change from trying to teach teens who weren’t always receptive to learning, according to Sheryl.
“Down there it was a privilege to go to school, because in prison not everybody gets to go,” she said, adding that Carolyn also had more control over the programs.
There, she found her niche and bonded with her students.
Carolyn’s degrees included a bachelor of science from Frostburg and masters in education, correctional education and education administration. She retired as principal of the education and college programs at the Maryland Correctional Training Center after 32 years.
She excelled in what had been a male-dominated field when she first started, according to Bill.
“They said she’d never make it, but she sure fooled them,” he said.
“Carolyn was an integral part of helping people become better citizens, ” Pete said. “When you release a person who is educated, that’s a big (part) of whether that person came back as a recidivist.”
In addition to working together at the prison, Pete and Bill served together in the Reserves and were friends as well.
Pete said Bill and Carolyn were the perfect match.
“They were both friendly and always in a good mood,” he said. “They always seemed to work together for the benefit of whatever they were involved in.”
In addition to Carolyn’s serious side, “she was the life of the party” at the Maryland Classified Employees Association conventions in Ocean City, Md., according to Jenel.
Carolyn was the unofficial president of “The Bunco Babes,” a group of a dozen women, 20 to 80 years old and all walks of life, who got together monthly for an evening of light-hearted fun playing the dice game Bunco.
She and Bill took vacations to places including Colorado, Alaska, Branson, Mo., and Russia. They went to Finland to visit the family of Marko Huttunen, an exchange student who lived with them during his senior year at Williamsport High School. Huttunen’s family also came here to visit them.
The couple saw the then-Baltimore Colts play in two Super Bowls and always enjoyed their annual trips with family in October and November to their timeshare at Massanutten Resort in Virginia.
Bill bought a field adjacent to their Sterling road home and raised sweet corn that he sold from a wheelbarrow in the yard, or from the back of his pickup truck parked on the nearby Downsville Pike.
The couple loved live theater and attended shows at the Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater, the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pa., and at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore.
They got involved at Sheryl’s suggestion with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and its Daffodil Days fundraiser.
Bill ended up delivering the flowers.
“Anything Carolyn was involved in I was, whether I had any idea of doing it or not,” he said with a grin. “With her, I couldn’t resist.”
Carolyn also did a lot for people behind the scenes.
After she passed, a nurse at Hospice who knew her as a volunteer before she was a client, revealed that Carolyn blessed someone every month.
Sheryl said the nurse related that while she was going through a divorce, custody battle and financial difficulties, she found an envelope from Carolyn in her mailbox that turned out to be a letter of encouragement and a sizable check.
“And she said (in the letter), ‘Take the day off and you and the kids do something fun,'” Sheryl said through tears.
Family members said Carolyn befriended everyone, and even sent gifts to college roommates’ children for years after they parted ways.
In the last months of her life, she caught wind of the Sweats for Vets program. Too sick to go shopping for the warm, fleece clothing to donate herself, she dispatched Jenel to do it.
“Even when she was so sick and her body was failing, she was still thinking of other people,” Sheryl said.

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