Suzanne Joyce Franzke Birkeland died of natural causes in Boulder, Colorado on July 3, 2023.  Sue was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on May 25, 1935, to Gertrude and Albert Franzke. The family soon moved to Seattle, Washington, where Sue grew up with her younger sister Gail.  In August 1959, at age 24, Sue married Peter Birkeland, also from Seattle.  Sue and Pete’s unconditional love for each other never waned, and they were nearly inseparable for more than 60 years.

Suzanne attended the Seattle school system and learned to ski with the Seattle Times Ski School.  She loved being on skis, and raced for Garfield High School ski team. She later told stories to her grandchildren of how she and a friend would get a car ride to Paradise on Mount Rainier in the springtime.  There they would strap on their wooden skis, attach seal skins to the bases, and climb nearly 5,000 vertical feet up to Camp Muir so they could ski back down.

After high school, Suzanne attended the University of Washington (UW), graduating in 1957 with a degree in Physical Education.  She raced on the UW women’s ski team, and many years later she was honored for her athletic achievements during an anniversary celebration of Title IX.  Sue spent the next winter in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she skied and worked as a waitress.  She and some friends used money they saved from their jobs to travel to Europe, where they spent nine months skiing, ski racing, and traveling in a VW bus that they drove part way around the Mediterranean Sea.

Suzanne married Peter Birkeland about a year after returning home.  They moved to California where Sue taught high school Physical Education for three years while Pete attended graduate school. In 1962, their son Karl was born, followed by daughter Robin three years later.  In 1967, the family moved to Boulder for Pete’s new job at the University of Colorado. Sue taught women’s fitness courses for the City of Boulder for more than 30 years, making lifelong friends, some of whom took her classes nearly every year.   

Over the years, Sue helped turn Pete’s summer geology fieldwork into family backpacking trips lasting weeks at a time.  One of Sue’s passions while in the mountains was looking for Native American artifacts, primarily arrow heads. Sue and Pete also enjoyed university sabbaticals to New Zealand, a trip around the world, and a third trip investigating the soils of numerous Pacific islands. Sue was an able field assistant on these trips, helping collect samples and taking meticulous notes in her neat handwriting.

Sue was a lifetime member of the Colorado Mountain Club. She was also one of the original Wednesday Ladies, a group of Boulder women who, from the early-1970s up until recently, went to the mountains nearly every Wednesday to hike in the summer and cross-country ski during the winter. She was active with the First Congregational Church, attending services regularly with Pete and with friends.  She joined Pete in biking everywhere for transportation.  Sue inherited a love of gardening from her father, and turned some of her harvest into apple sauce, pie, and various types of jam.  She especially enjoyed baking deserts and serving them with plenty of ice cream.  Her homemade macaroni and cheese and chocolate chip cookies became known, quite simply, as “Grandma’s Mac ‘n Cheese” and “Grandma’s Chocolate Chip Cookies” to her grandchildren, even when someone other than Grandma was doing the cooking!   

Sue welcomed the arrival of her granddaughters, making frequent trips with Pete to see Karl, Ginger, and granddaughters Erika and Kelsey in Bozeman, Montana.  She was especially excited when Robin, John, and granddaughter Natasha moved nearby. She relished her role as a grandmother and enjoyed engaging with her granddaughters as often as possible, and attending important events in their lives. Sue had a big smile and a huge heart, and she loved her many friends and her family.  She was a prolific letter-writer, writing weekly letters to her parents, sister, and children. She even occasionally penned separate letters to her grandkids when they were learning to read.  Sue radiated warmth to everyone coming through her door and was the first to give them a warm greeting and a hug.  She was sure to have leftovers ready when her children came home late, and she would sit and visit with them while they ate.  And, when her kids wandered in and out of Boulder as young adults, she would always make them feel welcome, loved, and cared for in her house.   

Sue is survived by her sister Gail (brother-in-law Jay) of Seattle, son Karl (daughter-in-law Ginger and grandchildren Erika and Kelsey) of Bozeman, Montana, and daughter Robin (son-in-law John Jugl and grandchild Natasha) of Boulder.  She was predeceased by her parents, and her loving husband Pete.    

Her final few years were not easy, but Sue faced them bravely.  She cared for Pete as he declined, but when he passed away 18 months ago a part of her went with him.  Over the past year, Robin provided vital care and support for Sue as her health deteriorated.  Karl and Robin are thankful for all the love and support she received from her friends, wonderful neighbors, amazing hospice workers, and numerous caregivers.  Many friends visited her frequently during her last months. A celebration of life will be held at a later date at the First Congregational Church in Boulder.

In honor of Sue’s enduring love of Native American culture, and of the people who lived in the Wind River Range, memorial donations can be given to the Wind River Development Fund:  https://www.windriverfoundation.org

9 thoughts on “Suzanne Birkeland”

  1. I am so blessed I got to know Sue. I got to know her because she was cousin’s wife. But I loved her because she was Sue ❤️ Bouldet – Oslo is a long distanse, so we didn’t meet often. Still, she felt very close to me and my family. May her memory be blessed

  2. Sue was a wonderful and welcoming host to all of Pete’s grad students. We loved her smile and her visits (along with Pete) in the field. I had no idea until reading the above that she and friends adventured around Europe in a VW after college….what fun that must have been!

  3. Lovely obituary! Sue was indeed a very loving and generous human being, a welcoming ‘mom’ to us, Pete’s graduate students…and a steady anchor for Pete. I have great memories of hiking and travelling with them! Sincere condolences to the family!

  4. I met Suzanne at the University Congregational Church when we were in high school and went on a Cristian Builders tour to the east coast with her. She was a great traveler and lots of fun. Unfortunately, our paths didn’t cross after that except perhaps at Sun Valley when we attended Ancient Skier reunions.

  5. Loved reading this memorial and how beautiful and congruent her life and personal happiness was met. This really helped me see how Sue and Pete were really a team! I knew that of course, but this text is so clarifying. What a wonderful couple they were, and now are… out there somewhere in our spiritual world… but alive in our hearts. ….Julie Brigham-Grette, Umass Amherst.

  6. Wonderful obituary. Another CU geology grad student here who got to know Sue through Pete, which later led to the two of them staying at my house in New Hampshire where our hike of Franconia Ridge led to knee replacement(s?) for Sue, but she later assured me that the hike was still worth it. Both Pete and Sue were also my skiing mentors, and Pete always reminded me that it was Sue’s cabin in Nederland that we used as a base camp for alpine lake sediment coring expeditions in winter. On another occasion my brother and I stopped by to visit one August afternoon to find a note on the front door that read “come through the house to back yard where we are working on a soils project.” Thom Davis, retired, Bentley University.

  7. Sue was a bright light. Always had a smile on her face; a wink and a shake of her head when Pete said something silly. I met Sue through Pete. They were such an adorable couple full of laughter, warmth and plenty of ribbing. I only saw Sue get annoyed with Pete and I one time. I met up with them at North Boulder Park to ski. Pete and I were talking nonstop and slowing Sue down. She finally said “you two can talk, I am going to ski”. Ha, she did several laps to our one lap around the park. This went on until she said. “I am heading home.” With Pete in tow. I miss my dear friend Pete. I miss the sweet woman he called his wife, *Sue*. Together again……

  8. Sincere condolences to Robin, Karl and their families upon the death of Sue so shortly
    after loss of their Dad Pete. The Birkelands’ exemplary marriage- their devotion to family,
    commitment to community and love of outdoors – inspired so many ! and will continue to
    resonate. How fortunate we are to have witnessed their wonderful lives.

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