This article appears in July/August 2015 Sixty-Plus.
Susan Bray has never been one to shy away from attention. She built her life around standing out.
As a blonde, long-haired “hippie chick” in the 1970s, Bray stood out in some Asian and Middle-Eastern countries that had never welcomed a white woman traveling solo.
Her adventures started after she left Nebraska and moved to Honolulu to live with her brother after college. A few years later, Bray married a physicist. They eventually relocated to Guam—“the hottest place on God’s green earth,” according to Bray. And she would know.
The travel bug bit hard soon after the couple divorced. She’s visited more than 50 countries in her 70 years of life. Most of her 50 countries came in a span of five years during three different trips.
She saw the cage in Titian where she believes Amelia Earhart was held captive by the Japanese until her death. She was goosed by a camel in Afghanistan. And she was horned in the rear by a water buffalo in Nepal.
Bray most recalls the kindness of the people in Nepal. It’s her favorite country. While there, she rented a motorcycle and headed toward Mount Everest—at least, until it broke down. She says, “It wasn’t a Harley, I’ll tell you.” But even out in the remote rice paddies, she quickly found help.
She went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It is the second most beautiful work of architecture she’s ever seen. The most stunning edifice Bray saw was the Golden Pagoda in Burma (now Myanmar). “It was like eight to 10 stories high, and it had a spiral staircase like the Guggenheim.” In an excited whisper, she then adds, “It was all plated gold. Just startling when you see it.”
Traveling cost a lot. She came home to her mother in Omaha in 1976 with about 45 cents to her name. Thankfully, pay phones only cost a dime at the time.
Subconsciously, Bray may have been studying art and architecture all over the world because she knew that’s where her heart was. Her passion led her to city planning in Omaha, which evolved into
Soon she grew restless and weary of Midwestern winters. Bray bought a house in Hawaii and lived there until her mother became ill. To be closer to her, she moved to La Jolla, Calif.
Quickly getting involved in historic preservation once again, “I ended up being in charge of the restoration of downtown San Diego,” Bray says. “I did an area called the Gaslamp Quarter. It was all old buildings I did…96 of them.”
In her living room is a newspaper clipping from the San Diego Tribune, the headline of which reads, “Gunslinger of the Gaslamp: Susan Bray is the guardian of downtown’s historical integrity—like her or not.”
She looks at the photo in the clipping and says, “The guys working on this building gave me a pink construction hat. So cute.”
Reflecting on Gaslamp, Bray says, “That’s my biggest contribution. I changed the footprint of a city. And that’s forever.”
Bray thinks a lot about legacies because she’s been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s called Orthostatic Hypotension. It’s terminal. This news came after she already survived lymphoma and breast cancer.
Her doctor in California recommended that she live near her burial site. So, six years ago, she threw all her photos, a small red chair, and a blue stool in her car to come back to Omaha.
Although she always appreciated the sense of community here, she felt sad to find so many of her good friends had already passed away or moved. She’s grateful for the new friends she has made and some friends from Westide High School she’s reconnected with.
Bray does not know the meaning of the term stranger. “I dialed the wrong number the other night in San Diego, and I ended up talking to a 79-year-old woman for an hour,” she says.
Even sales calls get a taste of her gusto. “My daily joy is making people laugh,” she says. “I think that’s why God put me on this earth.”
So even though Bray has to “fill a bathtub to feel at home” so far from the ocean, she’s made a home again in Omaha. Inside her apartment, Bray’s parakeet, Big Boy, sings in the background. Combine that with the vintage blond art deco floors—“I would only ever live in a historic property”—it could almost be a tropical getaway.