A Woman Apart | By Nomee Landis
Susan Franzblau has never been afraid to go looking for a good adventure. Adventure brought her to Fayetteville 18 years ago – along with a need to find a tenure-track teaching position in a city far-removed from the long winters of upstate New York. And her seeker’s heart will spirit her away again early next month. In early June, Franzblau will pack up her Scion and steer it west for a three-week cross-country journey with her long-time partner, Elva Trevino, which will take her back to California and the family that has been waiting for her return for a long time. At 67, she’s ready to go home.
Yet even after Franzblau departs, her influence will linger across this community, from Fayetteville State University, where she has taught psychology all of these years, to the city’s heart – its historic downtown – where she has lived since she purchased and renovated the building at 234 Hay St., in 1996. That building now houses her yoga practice, Om Yoga Studio, and her home, a loft apartment above the studio.
“Some people will probably be happy I’m gone, I suspect,” Franzblau said one evening over a glass of pinot grigio at Pierro’s, across Hay Street from her home. “Somebody told me once that people either love me or hate me. I don’t think there are people who are indifferent to me. There are lots who will be sad. There will be some who will not be.” Franzblau will tell you she has never been of the mainstream. She is a radical, and her politics lean far to the left. She will tell you she is opposed to almost all theories in psychology, even though she is a psychologist. She will say she is a round peg in a square hole and that there have been times here in Fayetteville when her differences have isolated her from her more conservative and traditional neighbors. “I always feel like an outsider here,” Franzblau said. “That is one of the reasons I’m leaving. I’m lonely.” She fretted a bit about revealing too much of herself and her past. She worried that providing more than a tame accounting of her life would alienate her further in this community she has called home for so long, even though she is leaving it. “All of those things that are interesting about me are the things you can’t write,” she said. Someday she would like to write a book about her life. Franzblau grew up in the Bronx, in New York City. By age 21, she was married to a well-traveled, Jewish rabbi named Marty Sofer, who was 18 years her senior and they were living in Hollywood. “I thought I was very old, very sophisticated and worldly,” she said. She was, in reality, young and naive, and she did not know who she was. By the time Betty Friedan’s iconic book, “The Feminine Mystique,” was published in 1963, Franzblau and her husband had two young children, Rena and David. She read Friedan’s book, which launched a wave of feminism in the United States, and she realized that it was all about her life. She decided she wanted something different, so Franzblau left her family and started school at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She continued straight on to her doctoral degree in psychology and then took a teaching job at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. About the same time, she joined the political movement, ultimately leaving her position in Tennessee to move to Washington, D.C., where she protested the war in El Salvador. From Washington, she moved on to Boston and a job as a paralegal to make ends meet. After four years without teaching, she realized she missed it and took a job at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She needed a tenure-track position, and that need took her to a university in Fredonia, N.Y., but Fredonia is situated on Lake Erie, and the winters were harsh. So Franzblau followed the sunshine south, to Fayetteville, and Fayetteville State University, where she has been since. When Franzblau arrived in Fayetteville in 1992, she drove downtown as part of her exploration of her new city. At that time, many of the buildings on Hay Street were dilapidated and shuttered. The Point News still operated where Hay and Old streets meet. A few other shops, the Hay Street Shoe Shop, Holmes Electric and Sunny’s Men’s Wear, were open for business, as was the legendary Rick’s Lounge. The Arts Council of Fayetteville-Cumberland County was there. That was about it. Many people were afraid to even venture downtown. “I saw it all,” Franzblau said, “and my first impression was, ‘What a shame that this wonderful street was all boarded up.’” Four years later, Franzblau had just sold her house in Haymount and was looking for something else. She ran into her real estate agent, John C. Malzone, a strong proponent for downtown redevelopment, at a festival on Hay Street. “I had just listed what was the Big Dish Restaurant,” Malzone said. “Frank Brown owned it, and he had just closed it because, at that time, downtown had not come back yet.” Malzone gave Franzblau a tour of the building, which was little more than a shell. “Imagine this as a loft apartment,” Malzone told her. “It would be so cool. You could make a rooftop garden. It would be the first one down here.” The city had just approved mixed-use zoning downtown, which would enable people to live above the storefronts for the first time in a century, Malzone said. “She saw the vision. Then Elva came and saw it, and she went crazy for it.” Franzblau bought the 4,000-square foot building for $59,500. Another $80,000 in renovations later, and she and Trevino moved in. Others soon followed, and now more than 50 people live in the historic business district. “But Susan had the distinction of being the first downtown resident,” Malzone said. “She has always been a visionary. We are going to miss her. We are going to miss her downtown. She has been a big part of downtown.” Franzblau has operated Om Yoga Studio on the first floor of her building since 2001. It was Fayetteville’s first yoga studio. Franzblau started with six students, all friends. Now hundreds of people attend classes there each week. She will teach her last class at Om on May 16, the day the studio will close. Franzblau has no intention of giving up yoga, though. Franzblau’s cross-country trip will take her from one coast to another. She plans to settle in Ojai, a town of about 8,000 residents that is situated inland from Ventura, in southern California. She and Trevino have already purchased a house there. It is a ranch-style home with fruit trees in the front yard and a huge live oak in the back. A separate bedroom will become Trevino’s art studio. And the living room is large enough to serve as a yoga studio. Franzblau has practiced yoga since 1995, and it has become a big part of her life. She intends to continue to combine her love of teaching with her love of yoga, right at home. Franzblau said she has always been a fighter for people’s rights. She has fought against injustice, and one way to do that is to end suffering. She believes yoga is a way to do that. She also studies the philosophies and practices of J. Krishnamurti, an Indian author and speaker who focused on philosophical and spiritual ideals, with love, compassion and relationships at the core. There is a school in Ojai that is operated by the Krishnamurti Foundation of America. Franzblau said she would like to continue to learn more about Krishmurti’s beliefs and to continue her political work in a more peaceful, cooperative way that embodies those philosophies. Franzblau is retiring from teaching at a university level. She wants to continue to teach yoga and to work with people, particularly women, in different ways. Franzblau hosted a radio show through Fayetteville State University’s WFSS for eight years between 1993 and 2004. The program was called, “Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives,” and focused on women’s issues and social issues. “I would only talk to women, and I talked to them about everything,” Franzblau said. “I’m just a feminist. I just prefer the company of women.” Franzblau has never been shy about sharing what she thinks with people. In 2003, just before the war in Iraq started, she helped launch a group here in Fayetteville called The Women in Black. It was organized to protest that war. She and other women stood on street corners, protesting. Some soldiers who drove by threw things at them. “But all of our arguments against the war turned out to be true,” she said. “It just seemed to me that you’ve got to stand up for what is right. I’m sure that didn’t make people very happy with me. But, you know, there are soldiers who come and do yoga in my yoga studio. If they asked, I would tell them I am against the war. Many of them are, too.” Deborah Mintz, the executive director of the Arts Council of Fayetteville-Cumberland County, said Franzblau is a woman for all seasons. She is a teacher, an artist, an actor, a patron of the arts, a yogi and an investor in downtown who has shared her passions and her interests in a thought-provoking way. Franzblau was instrumental in bringing a play called “The Vagina Monologues” to Fayetteville in 2001. Franzblau acted in the play, alongside her daughter, Rena Sofer, an actress who has had roles in such television shows as “24,” “Melrose Place,” “General Hospital,” “Heroes” and most recently, “NCIS.” The two performances of the Fayetteville play, which deals with women’s sexuality, were sold out. Mintz said Franzblau has often taken a leading role in introducing new ideas to Fayetteville – often fearlessly. “Sometimes her firsts don’t take as much courage,” Mintz said, “but some have. If she believed in it, she moved forward with great vigor. I think people do not realize how far her reach extended in this community. “She is thought-provoking, politically or otherwise,” Mintz said. “She just puts it right out there. She is authentic in what she feels and how she portrays what she feels, and that is wonderful, but it can be a little disconcerting. Fayetteville will lose something when she leaves – that authenticity. I feel like when she leaves that this community will miss her more than she thinks we will.” Franzblau is looking forward to her move. She wants to be closer to her mother, who is 92. She wants to be closer to her children and her two grandchildren, too. And she is ready for something new: the dry California air, mountain biking with her brother and dabbling in Shakespeare. “I’m looking forward to the adventure,” she said. “It will be a spiritual adventure, a philosophical adventure and an artistic adventure. I want to be with my kids, my family, my mother – for as many years as she’s got left. I just want to live. I want to live my life and teach what I know and give as much to others as I possibly can and just die knowing I lived my life to the fullest.”