Susan_Raye_Wiggins

Susan Raye Wiggins is in the midst of another comeback of sorts.

THE CALIFORNIAN / FILE

The doctor had just delivered the news. Breast cancer, he said. You'll have to have surgery.

The first thing out of Susan Raye Wiggins' mouth wasn't about mortality or medicine.

"Do you think I'll recover in time to run in the L.A. Marathon?"

Wiggins' daughter Brianna Hammond can laugh about it now. "She said the same thing when she came out of surgery: 'Will I still be able to run?'"

Her motivation transcended fitness goals. Still does. She is running for a cause: Wiggins raises money for Team World Vision, a huge provider of clean and sustainable drinking water in the developing world. That's one of the goals of Christian-based World Vision, the world's 13th-largest charity organization.

That she brought a certain fearlessness to the prospect of a potentially daunting comeback from cancer should surprise no one. Wiggins, a 72-year-old grandmother, knows something of comebacks.

The only singing Wiggins does these days is as a member of her church's praise team, but once upon a time she was a country music star. 

She was Buck Owens' "girl singer" for more than a decade, harmonizing with him on seven charting singles and four albums in addition to her solo work. Along the way she was nominated five straight years for Academy of Country Music awards including Top Female Vocalist.

But fame of that nature can be fleeting, especially when family obligations are pulling you in the opposite direction. Wiggins, married to former Buckaroos drummer Jerry Wiggins, had six children at home.

Whisked away by Owens as a teen, she had never gone to college and so, at 40, she enrolled at Bakersfield College. She signed up for the track and field team and competed against women literally half her age in the longer races, the 1500 and 3000 meters. But — and here's evidence of that fearlessness again — she also once tried her hand at the 200- and 400-meter sprints. "But I wasn't sticking my butt up in the air," she said, recalling her unfamiliarity with starting blocks. 

Then, upon leaving BC, she stopped running.

She transferred to CSU Bakersfield, earned a bachelor's in psychology and a master's in counseling, and worked nearly 20 years as a marriage and family therapist, foster care counselor and public school counselor before retiring.

Now, her third act is about fresh, clean water for people in parts of the world that have none. In the Kenyan villages where Wiggins has concentrated her efforts, women and girls often walk six to eight miles through the desert to scoop up impure water.

Spurred on by her youngest child, 39-year-old Brianna, a Team World Vision veteran, she ran in her first L.A. Marathon at the age of 68. It was a run-walk effort, she confesses, and though no records were broken, "I ran past a lot of people."

She continued to improve.

But then in August 2016 she had the breast cancer surgery, followed by months of radiation therapy. She had to set aside her running regimen.

She wasn't supposed to have bounced back this fast.

"But she's a powerhouse," Brianna said. "There's no holding her down."

Now it's all about the L.A. Marathon on March 19 and Team World Vision, which targets communities across the globe that need help developing water systems that are sustainable and comprehensive.

Team World Vision engages religious leaders, local governments and others in assessing the options of a given village. Its engineers then choose the best option for bringing in fresh water: Wells, pumps, rainwater collection systems, storage tanks and pipelines or other long-distance conveyance systems might be the answer, along with steps to improve sanitation and hygiene.

Wiggins is eager to play a small role in that. If you can help, go to teamworldvision.org, click on the magnifying glass icon and type "Susan Wiggins" into the search window.

Robert Price writes a weekly column for The Californian. Reach him at rprice@bakersfield.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

(1) comment

janiep

Susan is absolutely amazing. She has been my inspiration for years that she didn't even know about.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.