Wife of late Castle Commander makes $1 million gift to Merced College

Local rancher Susie Downey, on behalf of herself and her late husband Russell Downey, is donating $1 million to Merced College to support student success and access initiatives, the College’s Board of Trustees proudly announced during its regular meeting on Tuesday.

Local rancher Susie Downey, on behalf of herself and her late husband Russell Downey, is donating $1 million to Merced College to support student success and access initiatives, the College’s Board of Trustees proudly announced during its regular meeting on Tuesday.

“We look forward to honoring the Downey’s, and their commitment to lifelong learning, by naming the Merced College Learning Resources Center after them,” said Board President Ernie Ochoa.

The gift was set in motion prior to Col. Downey’s death in 2017. That’s when the former Castle Air Force Base commander told his wife that their life’s work running several local ranches would allow them to eventually make a large donation to an organization.

“My husband told me, ‘Susie, I know you worked hard for [this success], but without [children], it’s not enough.’” the 76-year old native of Vietnam explained during an interview last week. “He said, ‘When you’re part of a community like this, you want it to grow. Give it to someone here.’ So I honor his wish.”

Jill Cunningham, Executive Director of the Merced College Foundation, said it has been an honor getting to know Downey while working with her on this project.

“This is another wonderful example of community members who believe in the transformational power of a community college and, more specifically, in all that Merced College has done for this community for over 58 years,” Cunningham said.

Susie Downey, born near clear blue beaches of Nha Trang, Vietnam, met the colonel while working at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War. After falling in love, surviving the war and serving a two-year posting in Panama, the Downeys landed at Castle AFB. Susie then attended Merced College to improve her English.

Fast forward to 2019 when Downey, now retired and a widow, was bored living on an 80-acre ranch. Her close friend, current Board of Trustee member Carmen Ramirez, knew this and invited her to the Merced College’s State of the College address that spring for some socializing.

“And I knew everyone there,” said a chuckling Downey, an effervescent charmer who has long orbited within Merced County farming circles.

Among friends and business associates, she felt energized by the event and decided she would get more involved with the school. Raised with 10 siblings by a French professor father and a school teacher mother, Downey said she knew then it felt right to give the money to the school she had attended.

Merced College President Chris Vitelli was pleased to accept the generous gift from a former student.

“This donation comes at a time when student equity and access is paramount to all other priorities,” Vitelli said. “This gift will significantly contribute to our mission of student success.”

The donation will not be the last we see of Downey, who now wants to take other classes at the College. Her enthusiasm for learning is another gift.

“If you want to put your mind into it, you can do anything,” Susie Downey said. “Here I came to the U.S., and I spoke very little English. But I’m a success today. Think about that and follow that example.”

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