Standing comfortably in front of a tractor on her 110 acres in Westphalia, Susan Hattis Hengesbach wears heels and a white cocktail dress as if they are a standard farming uniform.
With a big personality and the jewelry to match, Hengesbach laughs casually while her photo is taken and switches easily from conversations about state-wide business initiatives to tips on how to keep a clean car while living on a dirt road (incidentally, the secret is as simple as getting a car wash as soon as you hit the pavement).
And that — right there — is the essence of Hengesbach. She is one of those women who has figured out how to take her two worlds, mesh them together and create a happy life.
An employee of the State of Michigan, Hengesbach joined the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce as an ambassador four years ago, meaning if you have anything to do with business in the capital region, chances are you know Hengesbach and she knows you.
And while several people wouldn’t be surprised to know that she’s been described as Lansing’s biggest cheerleader, some might be surprised to know that Hengesbach does not live in the city — in fact somewhat far from it. Calling Westphalia home, she and her husband of 37 years Larry, live a pretty simple life.
The couple, who married when Hengesbach was 19, enjoys spending time with their four children and five grandchildren, traveling, going to their cottage up north, attending Michigan State University (MSU) sporting events and are looking forward to retirement.
Hengesbach certainly doesn’t try to keep her life in Westphalia a secret; it’s just that when she’s talking with people in the Lansing community, she has a way of making it all about them — hence the reason she was once asked if she was even married.
To that, Larry laughs. Part of what makes their long-lasting marriage work is having separate interests.
The two met as teenagers at a local dance in Westphalia. Larry spotted Hengesbach dancing on the bar with a group of girlfriends. He had already known of Hengesbach and seeing her in her element sealed the deal. Hengesbach doesn’t mince words when it comes to what attracted her to Larry.
“His looks,” she said plainly.
She was 17 with her sights set on a college career at Central Michigan University (CMU), but when Larry popped the question two years after they met, Hengesbach didn’t hesitate.
“I had all these big plans … that changed my career goals,” she said. “I said ‘absolutely.’”
Adding with a laugh that she got a new house and new car along with a husband, Hengesbach knew Larry was the guy for her.
More than 35 years later Hengesbach said the key to making it last is basic — “Keep the fire lit!”
For her and Larry a long marriage also means being supportive and accepting of the other person. They have faced adversity together and have always minded their manners, respected each other and kept a date night.
As she does with everything in life Hengesbach gives marriage 150 percent. She dedicated four years to just Larry before welcoming their daughter Shannon.
“I wanted two children and I wanted, more than anything in the world, a little girl,” said Hengesbach.
She got her girl and then a boy, Ryan and then another boy, Eric and then another girl, Brittni. “God thought there was a place in our home for more,” said Hengesbach with a laugh.
A dedicated wife and mother, Hengesbach continued to find a place in her life for a career — something she felt was important thanks to her upbringing.
“My parents both had careers that they balance with family life and that set a pattern within me that I have followed my entire life,” she said. “As a parent it was important to me to model the same behaviors for my children.”
Her ideal paid off.
“She’s determined. Once she has her mind set on something, once her heart is set on it, she’s all about it,” said Hengesbach’s oldest daughter Shannon. “She’s a person who’s taught me whatever you set your mind to, you can accomplish.”
Starting as an administrative assistant in 1975 with the State of Michigan, Hengesbach has held many positions throughout her career. She has had a hand in planning major events, she has worked with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the Department of Commerce, the Housing Development Authority and more.
Hengesbach also works part-time at a local clothing store as a way stay close to one of her favorite topics — fashion. She was, after all, named best dressed in her high school and not much has changed.
And four years ago when asked to be an ambassador for the Chamber, Hengesbach stepped up. Today she serves as the ambassador chair.
“I started networking like there (was) no tomorrow,” she said. “I build relationships. Along with her work with the Chamber (which is voluntary) Hengesbach is a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and is very active with her local church — St. Mary’s — in Westphalia.
While it’s very apparent that Hengesbach has a passion for all of these things, it’s clear that her passion for her career and volunteer opportunities is nothing when compared to her passion for family.
Get Hengesbach talking about her four children or one of her five grandchildren — two of whom were born just 20 hours apart earlier this spring — and you’ll see Hengesbach really shine.
“My kids are all successful,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud … It just makes me so happy when I see my children happy.”
And while raising her children was a joy, Hengesbach said having grandchildren is even better. “The experience is over the top,” she said.
“She loves it,” said Larry. “She spoils them.” Three of her grandchildren live in Grand Rapids and two live right next door in Westphalia.
Along with spending time with her family, shopping and gardening, Hengesbach said she is really embracing this stage of her life as her own. “Now it’s time for me,” she said. In turn she’s been doing plenty of traveling, including lots of girls’ trips.
Hengesbach is dedicated to staying healthy and active and enjoys her time at the gym. No matter what she’s doing, she likes to be surrounded by people.
“People in general make me happy,” she said. “If I can put a smile on one person’s face a day, I’ve achieved my goal … It makes me happy to see someone else happy.”
Perhaps the best thing about Hengesbach is that even if you’ve only met her once, she’s willing to be your friend, a listening ear and she is always, always up for a good time.
“I don’t have one specific thing I like to do,” she said, “all someone has to do is call me and I’m ready for fun!”