- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

Susan Hager clasps her tiny hands, lifts her blue eyes toward the ceiling of her corner office with its panoramic view of Vermont Avenue NW and starts to chant: “Thank you for Eric, thank you for Elizabeth, thank you for Karen, thank you for Gary, thank you for life.”

“If I started to give thanks for everybody I need to, you wouldn’t have any more room on the page,” says Mrs. Hager, who celebrates 30 years as founder and chief executive officer of Hager-Sharp Inc., and two years of a brand-new lease on life this November.

While others have plenty for which to be thankful as they sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this week, Mrs. Hager is most thankful for the gift of a kidney donated by her communications firm’s administrator, Karen Cassiday.

It’s been said that “what goes around comes around.” And, Mrs. Hager is receiving a just a little of what she’s given away tenfold.

“She’s the best boss I’ve ever had and I kind of wanted to keep her around for a while,” said Mrs. Cassiday jokingly. It was no joke in the fall of 2001 when Mrs. Hager fell deathly ill to a rare, genetic kidney disease in which cysts grow on the organ and eventually poison the system. Family and friends discreetly sent out letters and searched for donors after it was determined that neither her husband, Eric, nor her daughter, Elizabeth — nor a host of other relatives — were good matches.

Working in such close proximity to her boss and answering phone calls from doctors and other potential donors, one day as Mrs. Hager’s situation worsened, Mrs. Cassiday slipped away to the Washington Hospital Center for testing.

“I volunteered to get tested thinking is was a nice thing to say,” said the soft-spoken Mrs. Cassiday. Little did she know that after each round in the selection process, she would come closer to being the perfect match.

Mrs. Cassiday, a computer and Internet whiz, said she was in good health; she discovered you can live with just one kidney and “after doing my own research, I didn’t see where there was really much risk.”

“Karen literally saved my life, I wouldn’t be here without her,” said Mrs. Hager, who kidded her assistant about using all her vacation and sick leave to recuperate. “But Karen’s symbolic of the people who work here, and that’s a blessing, too.” Mrs. Cassiday, who lives in Fairfax with her husband and two children, just wanted to be certain that she’d recuperate from the Nov. 1, 2001, transplant surgery in time to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her family. “Well, I cooked,” she said with a sweet smile.

Do the women do anything special each year to celebrate the successful transplant? “We go to the Kidney Ball,” they say in unison before breaking out in laughter. The gala, held Saturday, is an annual fund-raiser for the D.C. chapter of the Kidney Foundation.

Mrs. Hager, 59, who was born at Bolling Air Force Base in the District, is well-known in national and local volunteer circles for the countless hours she spends on the boards of such organizations as Brescia University (her alma mater), Leadership Washington and the Lab School of Washington.

Last night, she was honored by her firm’s employees at the Lab School, where she has been on the board of directors for years, and recently led major fund-raising efforts for the special education school’s expansion.

“Community commitment and sharing is encouraged and Susan backs it up,” says Gary R. Curtis, senior vice president and a longtime friend.

Mrs. Hager’s generosity and caring are carried over from her days as a VISTA volunteer working in an Alaskan village called White Mountain to the social-marketing business she founded 30 years ago with Marcia Sharp. In those early days when her first clients were the National Center for Voluntary Action and the League of Women Voters, she said she wanted to help nonprofits promote themselves and position them to compete for President Nixon’s newly created block-grant funds.

Mr. Curtis explains that the company “uses Madison Avenue advertising practices to change attitudes and behaviors.”

“We sell issues and individual awareness instead of cars and canned soup,” Mrs. Hager said.

Soup to nuts, Hager Sharp created the first national campaign for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which encouraged low-income working families to get the earned income-tax credit. Working with the National Cancer Institute, they produced a women’s summit on mammography with Barbara Bush, which raised breast-cancer awareness. Diabetes, education, emergency coordination plans and victims counseling are just a few of the other subjects of public-awareness campaigns the firm produces.

“We have great clients who do wonderful things, and that makes a difference to us,” Mrs. Hager said.

When Mrs. Hager, the eldest of seven children raised in Owensboro, Ky., wanted to start her own business, she couldn’t get her own credit card and she needed her husband to co-sign for a loan. These discriminatory practices led Mrs. Hager to spearhead a movement for female entrepreneurs, and she founded and became the first president of the National Association of Women Business Owners. A member of the National Advisory Council of the Small Business Administration under five presidents, Mrs. Hager was among those honored by Working Woman in its 25th anniversary issue.

“Women are a part of the business community today, and I’m proud to say I had a hand in that,” said Mrs. Hager.

She might look like a pixie, but Mrs. Hager “has a combination of strategic smarts, good old-fashioned grit and a toughness that the public doesn’t see,” Mr. Curtis adds.

As for Mrs. Cassiday, her colleagues continue to tease her about her “pretty good job security.” But she says the transplant “was as much a gift for me as it was for Susan.”

“It’s really cool to give a piece of yourself and not feel any different.”

As Thanksgiving eve approaches, Mrs. Hager answers a question with a question: “Do I have thanks? You bet. I’m alive.”

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