$1-million gift born of husband’s dying wish and immigrant wife’s appreciation for Merced College

By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

$1-million gift born of husband’s dying wish and immigrant wife’s appreciation for Merced College

Susie Downey was retired. She was bored. She’d received an invitation from a friend to attend an event at Merced College and she accepted.

This is the modest beginning to a $1-million story that cycles through war-torn Vietnam, detours onto the College campus, and ends with Downey donating seven figures in September.

The $1-million gift allows Merced College to name the Learning Resources Center after Susie and her late husband Russell Downey, an Air Force veteran and former commander at Castle Air Force Base.

President Chris Vitelli was pleased to accept the largesse from a former student.

“[Downey’s gift] comes at a time when student equity and access is paramount,” Vitelli said. “It will significantly contribute to our mission of student success.”

Susie Downey was motivated to make the gift during a random outing.

There wasn’t much going on for the retired widow when her lawyer, Board of Trustee member Carmen Ramirez, invited her to Merced College’s State of the College address in the spring of 2019.

“I knew everyone there,” said a chuckling Downey, a longtime member of the Merced County ranching community.

She felt energized at the gathering and decided to get more involved. Ramirez sent her to Associate Vice President Jill Cunningham, Executive Director of the Merced College Foundation. She told Cunningham that she’d learned English while taking classes at the College.

Few things set Cunningham’s professional radar pinging like Merced College alumni stories. Soon thereafter Susie decided she would give something to her alma mater.

We started this story at the end. Let’s go back to the beginning.

The donation was born from Russell and Susie Downey’s wartime love story.

Born Xuan (pronounced Suh-wahn) Dieu, Susie grew up swimming in the crystal clear waters of Nha Trang.

The 21-year old stewardess then met the career airman from Indiana—Russell flew B-52 combat missions during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars—during a job interview at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War.

After snagging a receptionist’s job, Susie and Russell became acquainted. When Russell asked Susie to cook for him and his colleagues, he witnessed the effervescent charmer, while making chicken with rice, kill and butcher several chickens.

“They stared at me like I’m from another planet!”

Susie said, laughing. Russell later admitted that’s when he decided to marry her.

“He fell for it,” Susie said.

Col. Downey bought them scooters. They’d drive all over Saigon “like two outlaws” in the afternoon and then go dancing at night. Those were the halcyon days of their courtship in Vietnam.

The Downeys were married in Las Vegas before moving to Atwater in 1970.

Col. Downey ran the 93rd bomber wing at Castle. He was promoted to commander in 1972 and retired in 1973.

They grew to love Atwater and began buying and selling local ranches. Susie did the hands-on work on their ranch as the Downeys built a small fortune together, and the colonel learned fascinating things about Susie.

“He used to say, ‘Susie is dangerous. I have to sleep with one eye open because she’s the one who castrates the pigs!’” Susie said.

Russell died, at age 94, in 2017.

“He was a good man,” she said. “I laugh a lot but he was very serious. It was a wonderful life. We were married 53 years.”

That brings us back to Merced College.

Susie had learned some English in Vietnam, but needed more to thrive in the U.S. Russell encouraged Susie to improve her English and that’s how she came to the College in the mid-1970s.

She remembered how much fun she had in her English classes when it came time to make this gift.

“My husband told me, ‘Susie, I know you worked hard for [this success], but without family, it’s not enough,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘When you’re part of a community like this, you want to see it grow. Give it to someone here.’ So I honor his wish.”

Downey’s $1-million gift matches others from the Lakireddy Family [2008] and the Bizzini Family [2003] as the second largest in Merced College history. Local farmer Raj Kahlon committed the largest, $5 million, in 2019.

Susie is a Merced College success story.

“The thing is, if you want to put your mind into it, you can do anything,” Downey said. “Here I come to the United States, and I speak very little English, but I’m a success today. Think about that and follow that example.”