Janja Susac came to the United States from Croatia as a young woman and spent much of her life helping fellow Croatian Americans preserve and celebrate their cultural heritage.
Mrs. Susac died Oct. 23, the day before a room for folk dancing was to be named for her at the Sacramento-area’s Croatian American Cultural Center. She was 83.
Mrs. Susac’s daughter, Kristina Susac, said her mother was diagnosed with cancer in July. It was her goal to live long enough to attend the wedding of her eldest grandson, San Francisco Giants catcher Andrew Susac, on Nov. 14.
When her condition began rapidly deteriorating Oct. 21, Kristina Susac said Andrew Susac and his fiancée rushed to his grandmother’s Arden Arcade home. His fiancée donned Mrs. Susac’s wedding veil and the couple, along with the Rev. Mike Carroll, gathered in her bedroom. Father Carroll administered a blessing, breaking the Host into three pieces, and Mrs. Susac recited prayers in Croatian.
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Seemingly satisfied, Mrs. Susac went to sleep and died two days later, said her daughter.
Mrs. Susac was born Feb. 4, 1932, in Croatia to Ivan and Bozica Butigan. She was one of nine children, and during World War II, she and her siblings were separated, dispatched to live with various relatives, said her daughter.
After the war, an uncle who owned almond and walnut orchards near Stockton paid for Mrs. Susac to study fashion design in Zagreb and Salzburg, said Kristina Susac. In 1957, Mrs. Susac came to the United States to care for her uncle. It was at a Croatian festival in the Stockton area that she met her future husband, Yanko Susac.
She would see a person and know what would look good on them.
Kristina Susac, recalling her mother’s skills as a fashion designer
Kristina Susac described her mother as the backbone of the family’s construction business, and the award of large contracts were typically celebrated with Mrs. Susac’s strudels, baklavas and pastries.
While raising three children, she and her husband also were involved in helping members of the Sacramento-area’s Croatian community pass along their heritage to their children and grandchildren. Mrs. Susac started the Croatian Language School in Sacramento in 1968, along with the Croatian Folk Dancing Club, said her daughter.
She collected antique folk costumes and also designed costumes for the young folk dancers. Kristina Susac said her mother used her fashion design talents, sewing dresses for her daughter, relatives and friends.
“She would see a person and know what would look good on them,” said Kristina Susac. She recalled shopping for dresses and seeing pleats she liked on one and a collar she liked on another. Her mother would take out her pad and start sketching.
Mrs. Susac was a founding member of the Croatian American Cultural Center, and a member of the Croatian Women’s Club, Croatian Fraternal Union and St. Philomene Parish. She also was an active supporter of Jesuit and Loretto high schools.
She organized fashion shows for the church and Loretto High School, and she kept tabs on her children and grandchildren’s sporting events, often calling around for updates on scores, said her daughter.
Mrs. Susac and her family also were involved in fundraising efforts for local and global causes. Through events, such as an annual Croatian festival, they helped raise more than $160,000 in the early 1990s to aid humanitarian efforts in then war-torn Croatia.
When a grandson was visiting Croatia a few years ago, he learned there was a baseball team in the city of Split, but noted that the team’s uniforms were not that great, recalled Kristina Susac. Her mother raised $15,000, reaching out to people in the community, to buy the team new uniforms.
Mrs. Susac recently donated her collection of Croatian costumes to the Croatian American Cultural Center to be used by young folk dancers.
Stan Lovric, a director of the dance group which typically consists of 20 to 30 children and teenagers, said Mrs. Susac for years sewed and altered costumes for the group, found dance instructors and recruited youth to participate.
He said Mrs. Susac and her family helped him, first when he came to the United States as an exchange student in 1990 and again in 1997 when her returned to live in the Sacramento area.
“She made the wedding dress for my wife,” he said.
Growing up during World War II, Mrs. Susac had a difficult youth, “but she never felt pity for herself,” said Kristina Susac.
Each day when her children came home from school, she would say to them, “Tell me three kind things you did for someone during the day,” recalled her daughter. The best way to overcome disappointment or sadness, she told them, was to look for someone they could help.
Mrs. Susac is survived by her husband, daughter Kritina Susac of Berkeley, sons Nick Susac of Roseville and Johnny Susac of Sacramento, and six grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Philomene Catholic Church, 2428 Bell St., Sacramento.