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Shelter Island Reporter obituary: Susan McClanahan

Susan McClanahan, an entrepreneur who founded two successful book publishing companies in New York City and was active in the Presbyterian church, died peacefully in Bonita Springs, Fla. on May 17, 2021.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Susan began to spend weekends on Shelter Island. She purchased a house on the island in 1988, and family and friends have many good memories of games of scrabble by the pool. Susan and her daughter Abigail ran the Shelter Island 10K on numerous occasions, each winning best in her age group.

Born Susan Diffenderfer in Salina, Kans. in 1946 to David and Virginia Diffenderfer, she was the second of three children. She was raised in Lincoln, Nebr., where she excelled in high school academics, and attended the University of Nebraska, studying English on a full scholarship. Upon graduation, with $400 in her pocket, she moved to New York City with the dream of becoming a poet. Faced with economic realities, she began to explore other careers within the writing profession. She soon made her way to publishing, where she worked as an author, editor, and in sales.

Then, at 29, Susan launched her first company.

McClanahan & Co., Inc., founded in 1975, became the premier developer of textbooks in the United States, a position it held for 21 years. The firm expanded so fast that it was named one of Inc. magazine’s “500 Fastest Growing Companies” on three separate occasions. In 1997, Pearson, a U.K.-based corporation, acquired the company.

In 1990, at 55, Susan founded her second company, McClanahan Book Co., Inc. With a catalogue of 350 titles sold in major retailers, the company became one of the fastest growing children’s book publishers in the latter part of the 20th Century. Its mission was to provide engaging, educational books for children at a price that all families could afford. In 1999, the company was purchased by American Greetings. As Susan built both companies, she was also raising two children, Sabina and Abigail French, with her second husband, Donald French.

Following the sale of her second successful company, Susan should have been elated, but instead felt a void. After a friend unexpectedly invited her to attend a church service at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, Susan began reading the Bible in earnest, and became deeply connected with its teachings. Within a year, she had become a Stephen Minister and then a deacon. Furthering her commitment to service, Susan began volunteering at the James Lenox House, an independent living facility located on the Upper East Side. A handful of these residents became regulars at family gatherings and holidays.

Susan also began volunteering with fund-raising at several other nonprofits that specialize in sheltering the elderly or in educating children. She was on the board of directors at Achieve3000 (an Internet-based children’s literacy company), where she mentored the founders for 10 years — and also at the Churchill School and Center, a New York school for children with learning disabilities.

Throughout her life, Susan retained a bright spark as well as an unrelenting drive for achievement, and for love. Possessing a quick wit, and a caring hand, Susan was at once a devoted mother, aunt, sister, friend, and adviser — and a fabulous host known for her inviting atmosphere and delicious meals.

A girl from Nebraska who achieved success in publishing in New York City, Susan lived a life beyond expectation. Though she succumbed to cancer, a battle she fought with vigor for 18 years, her ferocious and tender spirit lives on in the hearts of those who loved her.

She is survived by her two daughters, Sabina and Abigail French (and Abby’s dog, Ronnie); sister Dee Dee Costello; brother David Michael Diffenderfer; nieces Ann Husvar (and her family), Laura Diffenderfer, and Carrie Diffenderfer; and many beloved friends. A memorial is planned for the fall.

The family wishes memorial contributions be made to Hope Hospice, 9470 Healthpark Circle, Ft. Myers, FL 33908 or online at www.hopehcs.org.