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Susan Ferguson

Bakersfield Realtor Susan Terry Cahan Ferguson didn't have breast cancer when she began volunteering for the American Cancer Society 18 years ago. It was pure altruism that motivated her back then, typical, say friends and family, of her giving spirit.

But it was cancer that took Susan's life on Thursday, when she lost a more than five-year battle with the disease. She had just turned 71.

Susan served on the steering committee for Relay for Life of Bakersfield, which last year raised nearly $1.7 million for the American Cancer Society.

Relay for Life is an overnight event wherein a tent city is erected near an athletic field. Runners or walkers take turns circling a track from the start of the first day to the end of the last day.

Susan also led a Relay team for Coldwell Banker -- where she worked for 20 years with her husband and partner, Stan Ferguson -- and spoke regularly in the community about medical research, legislation and other issues related to the disease.

"She was a good friend and one of our biggest supporters. Because she was out there with all her real estate connections, her message was far reaching," said Bakersfield Relay for Life Manager Brenda Godbold.

The real estate community has lost a leader and an inspiration, said Coldwell Banker broker Gary Belter. "She was smart, witty and understood real estate. She knew how to get a deal done."

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Atlantic City, Susan was living in Memphis when she split up with her first husband, with whom she had three daughters.

A young single mother who had not finished college, Susan had to figure out how to support three children under the age of 9.

She started out selling jewelry at craft shows, and later landed a job at a home decor shop, where she became a well-regarded interior designer.

Her next job was recruiting for a temp agency that she eventually bought. The firm was one of the first in the country to use the Internet for executive recruitment, said daughter Sandra Walter, 49.

"It was like an early," she said. "She was way ahead of her time."

Susan belonged to a sales and marketing club in those days and served on its executive committee with Stan, the man who became her second husband.

Stan spotted her talking to a friend at an event and asked the friend to introduce them. On their first date, they talked nonstop for three hours.

"I was hooked from day one," he said. "It was magic. Our personalities just meshed. You could feel it through her eyes, which were a gorgeous blue that I could just stare into forever."

Stan told her right away he wanted to marry her. Susan laughed dismissively.

"I won, obviously," he said. Their 30th wedding anniversary would have been June 3.

Stan talked Susan into relocating to Bakersfield in 1986. Neither of them much cared for Memphis, and Stan had lived here before and liked it.

"We got here in summer when it was 100 degrees, and it stayed 100 or higher for the next 30 days," he said.

Aghast, Susan expressed regret about the move, but then she got to know the people here and decided this was home.

A past Realtor of the Year, Susan got a real estate license in 1992 and worked two years for another firm before joining Caldwell Banker in 1994.

In addition to her work on Relay, Susan worked with the Bakersfield Breakfast Rotary on a school supply drive; and helped lead Wreaths 4 Fallen Service Members, her way of honoring her World War II veteran father.

It was about five and a half years ago that Susan was diagnosed with cancer. She threw herself into the fight for her life with all the same energy and vigor she had given to her many pet causes.

"People don't realize it, but she was very smart, very bright," said neighbor, friend and colleague Leslie Walters, 56. "She did an amazing amount of research on cancer, to the point where people were coming to her for information.

"And she was always positive, every day of her cancer journey."

Daughter Stacey Walter, 45, said her mother's steadfastly upbeat attitude was remarkable.

"Never a victim, she identified as a survivor and she never gave up," Stacey said. "It made me realize what a positive, strong and inspirational woman she was."

Her daughters said she was as nurturing to their friends growing up as she was to them.

"She was definitely the cool mom that my friends enjoyed spending time with and looked forward to seeing," said youngest daughter Dr. Anne Walter, 41. "We enjoyed spending time together going to museums, cooking, or looking for a bargain."

Even as she fought for her life, Susan was constantly thinking of others, relatives said. Whenever she was at her computer researching her disease, she was simultaneously knitting clothes for her beloved granddaughter, and her granddaughter's dolls.

"From the moment I told my mom I was pregnant, she began knitting and creating things to make sure my daughter would know how much she was loved," Anne said.

Susan's daughters called her kitchen "the center of the universe" because she so often hosted family get togethers, especially on Jewish holidays.

Susan's faith was very important to her, and she was a patient teacher to Christian friends who were curious about her religion, Leslie said.

Susan is survived by her daughters, Sandra Walter of Kensington, Md.; and Stacey Walter of Long Beach; as well as daughter Anne Walter, son-in-law David Goldstein and granddaughter Vivian Naima Goldstein of San Rafael; plus two brothers and a mother.

Services are 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at Temple Beth El in Bakersfield.

The family welcomes donations in Susan's name to the American Cancer Society.