Winning Spalding’s Caritas Medal left Susan Griffin speechless

Steve Jones

When Susan McKim Griffin reflects on a career of success in higher education and the advancement of nonprofit organizations, she praises her alma mater, Spalding University, for starting her down the path of professional achievement and satisfaction.

Early last summer, Spalding reciprocated, giving Griffin its highest order of praise as the 2017 winner of the Caritas Medal, which recognizes the university’s alumnus or alumna of the year.

Presented since 1961, the Caritas Award is the highest honor awarded by Spalding. The winner, who’s chosen from nominations by other Spalding alumni, is recognized for having made a significant contribution in a particular field and who embodies the qualities and spirit of service encompassed in the philosophy, mission and tradition of Spalding.

Griffin, the owner of Griffin Fundraising and Marketing and a former fundraiser at the University of Louisville and the Cathedral Heritage Foundation, has been a leading woman in her field and has left a lasting mark with her consulting firm having helped raised more than $100 million for clients over three decades.

Griffin also has contributed analysis on workforce diversity and was an administrator for the Kentuckiana Metroversity higher-ed corsortium.

The 1968 Spalding graduate also represents a little piece of history at her alma mater, having served as Spalding’s first admissions counselor. That was Griffin’s first job out of college and one she looks back on fondly.

“Spalding started me on this course,” she said.

Griffin said she was stunned to receive word in March from Spalding President Tori Murden McClure that she’d been selected as the 2017 Caritas winner.

McClure had requested a lunch meeting that day, but Griffin had no clue what McClure wanted to discuss. McClure also brought Griffin’s son, Bert, who is Spalding’s chief advancement officer. Bert Griffin hadn’t told his mother he would be there, which made her even more curious what the meeting was about.

“Tori said, ‘You’re probably wondering why I invited you for lunch,’” Susan Griffin recalled. After McClure gave her the news that she’d won the Caritas, Griffin got emotional.

“I could not speak,” Griffin said. “It just never crossed my mind. I just couldn’t speak for the longest time. ’ It has been a road of memories and such joy to go through the whole process. It took my breath away.”

Griffin said she was touched to have family, friends, clients and classmates attend the Caritas receptions that were held in her honor, including some who drove several hours to be there. At one gathering, McClure invited attendees to have an open-mike session of sorts to share stories about Griffin.

“It was incredible,” Griffin said. “You start thinking about the work you do every day and don’t give it much thought, and then (at an event like that) you start thinking about the organizations that you work with. … So it’s truly standing on the shoulders of other people so that we can do things that others care about. That night all exploded in my mind, and I will forever be grateful.”

An accomplished career

Griffin graduated from Spalding with a bachelor’s degree in history. She had given almost no consideration to what she wanted to do for a career after college, except for feeling confident her Spalding education would prepare her to succeed at something.

She didn’t have to look far for her first job offer. President Sister Mary Charlotte Fowler asked Griffin if she would like to organize the university’s admissions office and become its recruiter.

Griffin traveled up and down the East coast presenting at Catholic college fairs from Massachusetts to Florida – once riding out a hurricane in a Daytona Beach hotel.

After a year, she requested an opportunity to learn more about higher education, and Spalding administrators helped place her with a full scholarship at Indiana University’s graduate program for personnel administration.

The added training and the experience eventually propelled Griffin into four years of work in Florida – two at a community college and two at Florida State University. While at FSU, she was a part of a group that analyzed workforce diversity during the onset of Affirmative Action.

She moved back home to work at the University of Louisville, then ultimately took a job at Metroversity, spending 15 years developing programs and helping universities become more accessible to nontraditional students.

After stints in the advancement departments at U of L and the Cathedral Heritage Foundation, she set out on her own to start a private firm that has served dozens of clients over the years. It was the first such firm in the state to be owned by a woman.

She traces much of her success back to her Spalding roots.

“It wasn’t just about the time I was here,” she said. “It was the time I was here and when I graduated, you got me a job, and when I decided I needed to go back to school, you supported me with that, and it’s just kept on. I never really started thinking about Sister Mary Charlotte being the one who started me on that path until I started thinking about, ‘How did I get here?’”

With her 50-year graduation reunion coming next year and Spalding’s 100-year anniversary of being located downtown coming in 2019-20, Griffin encourages fellow alumni to come back to Spalding and see the changes that have occurred on the growing campus.

“Decisions are being made here that are really, in my opinion, cutting-edge for small universities and are having a big mark on our community,” Griffin said. “I think Tori McClure has put a name on this place that will forever and ever make us all proud. … I think anyone who’s ever stepped foot on Spalding’s campus needs to come and see the difference, the thoughtfulness that’s been put into new green spaces and the way the campus looks and the feel and the connectivity to downtown and the SoBro neighborhood. It’s magnificent.”

Griffin also encourages alumni to nominate classmates to become the next Caritas Medal winner. Nominations for 2018 are being accepted through Jan. 29.

Griffin keeps her Caritas medal on a chain given to her by husband and wears it on special occasions.

“It keeps Spalding in front of me all the time,” she said. “… For any future winner of the Caritas medal, that individual is in for a rare treat of recognition and honor and love, but more important, it’s a reflection on the whole institution.”