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Getting to know Commissioner-elect Susan Byrnes

Julia Scheib
505-5439/@JuliaDispatch
York County Commissioner Susan Byrnes is shown in sleeping quarters at Veterans' Helping Hand Shelter at 412 West King Street in York, Pa. on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. Byrnes is also the Board President of York County Veterans Outreach, who partnered with Veterans Helping Hands to to raise more than $100,000.00 to renovate the 2500 square foot structure that would become the shelter.  (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

One day in 1988, Susan Byrnes recalled, a man came into the emergency room where she worked after having had a massive heart attack.

"We worked for two hours to save him, and we couldn't," she said. "He was in his late 40s. I had to go with the doctor into the the quiet room and tell his wife."

The York County commissioner-elect said the experience was all the harder for her because she knew the man's suffering and death could have been prevented.

She knew his life probably wouldn't have ended that way "if he hadn't been overweight and a smoker," she said.

Sitting in the bunk room of the soon-to-open Veterans' Helping Hand shelter on West King Street in York, a project she helped make a reality, Byrnes remembered the events of that day as a catalyzing moment in her life.

Seeing preventable suffering and death in the E.R. and losing her mother-in-law to a substance abuse-related illness, she said, made her want to take action to educate people about how to live healthy lives.

A new chapter: Byrnes quit her nursing job that year and started the Byrnes Health Education Center. After that, she said, all her work was done on a volunteer basis.

She and her husband, Randy, were raising their three children who are now grown — Katie, 37, a PhD in mindfulness education; Kristin, 36, co-founder of CoWork155 in downtown York; and Dan, 35, a Marine combat veteran, who also has a business.

Byrnes' daughter Kristin Baker emphasized her mom's kind and giving nature.

She said when Byrnes volunteered at a hospice while working part-time as a nurse, she brought her then-small children to visit dying patients. "They loved to see kids," she remembered.

"We'd feel uncomfortable, but she'd just be so natural and friendly," Baker said.

When Byrnes stopped working as a nurse for a life of volunteerism, the commissioner-elect said, her husband owned a custom-staffing business called the BYRNES Group. He now works as an executive coach.

Byrnes served as the health education center's board chairwoman for 12 years and stepped down in 2002, she said, but remains on the board.

The center has incorporated online education into its health-education efforts and, Byrnes said with pride, it has reached over 7 million people.

"What I think is amazing about the health education center is that (Byrnes) founded it fully as a grassroots nonprofit," said Katie Herrington, the center's former chief operating officer. Unencumbered by having to act within a larger corporate structure, "we could react quickly to whatever emerging health topics we saw in the community," she said.

The daughter, granddaughter and mother of combat veterans has been involved in efforts to help former service men and women for the past decade and has built a reputation in the community.

"Yesterday, I got a call from a veteran asking where Thanksgiving dinner was being served," Byrnes said. She didn't know how the man got her number but is glad people see her as an approachable person who's willing to help, she said.

She hoped he would make it to dinner at the veterans' shelter the next day. She'd be dropping off a cooked turkey at noon, she said.

Beginner's mind: "I don't know if you've ever heard the saying, 'People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,'" Byrnes said.

"I know the health care community, the business community, the giving community," she said. "What I didn't know was the government community."

Byrnes said she recently spent a Sunday and most of a Monday at a conference of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which is a nonprofit that aims to strengthen counties and their leaders.

She spent the following Tuesday meeting with York County's current commissioners.

Byrnes isn't sure what issues she will focus on in her first months in office, she said, but she's ready to dive in and is confident in how she'll act in the office.

Deep listening: The commissioner-elect said she'll want to talk with all of the county's more than 50 department heads and as many staff as possible.

Listening to the people on the ground will give her an idea of how to empower them to "do the best they can do," she said.

When she does identify a problem, she said, she will consult with experts on the topic, then do her own research and then make a decision.

Support: Byrnes received more than 8,000 more votes than fellow Republican Chris Reilly, who garnered the second-highest number of votes in November's County Commissioners' race, according to unofficial results.

"I'm thrilled to see her do so well because she's the real deal," said Sam Bressi, a former CEO of the health education center who counts Byrnes as a close friend. "She is the epitome of dedication, integrity and hard work."

"When she first told me (she was running), I was shocked and didn't understand why she wanted to put herself out there like that," Baker said. "But she didn't see it like that — she just thought about the influence she could have and the good she could do."

Byrnes' candidacy led Baker to see her mom in a new light.

The campaign "wasn't easy," Baker said. Byrnes had to "really work for it."

"She used to tell me what her dad used to tell her: that dynamite comes in small packages," said Baker, who is petite like her mom. "That didn't really hit me until I saw her running for county commissioner. It's like all those things she's done in the past are adding up."

— Reach Julia Scheib at jscheib@yorkdispatch.com.