MISSOULA ~ Susanne Leppmann Bessac died January 17, 2022, in her home of over fifty years in Missoula.
She was born November 9, 1929, in Waldheim, Germany. Her father was Joachim Leppmann (a civil engineer), and her mother was Marianne Hempel Leppmann, M.D. (a physician). In 1933 Germany decreed that no Jews could be employed in civil services—with the result that neither parent could work. At the age of 3, Susanne and her family traveled across the USSR and the Caspian Sea to Iran, where Joachim worked on building the docks and other infrastructure of Iran, which were crucial for the Lend-Lease Program. The family lived in Tehran on Khiaban-e-Pahlevi near the British Embassy, where Susanne’s mother found work. Their house had a flower garden, trees, and a small pool. The neighborhood gardens and nearby Elburz Mountains were the playground for Susanne, her sister Dorothee, and their friends. Gardens, long walks, and skiing in the mountains would always be part of Susanne’s life. Into her 90’s, she could be found tending to her flowers in her garden and was always happy to go into the mountains to find wildflowers. She deeply understood her good fortune in growing up in Iran instead of Germany and felt forever grateful to the people of Iran.
At the end of World War II, Susanne and Dorothee, aged 15 and 16, left their parents in Iran and traveled on an old freighter to war torn England. They lived with an aunt and cousins and attended Oxford High School GDST. A favorite memory was bicycling across England and up to Scotland with her sister and cousins, sleeping in barns along the way.
Joachim and Marianne settled in Chicago, where their daughters soon joined them. Susanne received a scholarship to Beloit College, Wisconsin. After two years in the Midwest, Susanne transferred to University of California-Berkeley. Her fascination in anthropology first developed while exploring the ancient ruins and diverse cultures of Iran and led to her receiving a B.A. in 1951 and a M.A. in 1955 in anthropology. Her M.A. thesis was “The Eskimo Representational Art in Two Dimensions”.
A handsome fellow graduate student, Frank Bessac, who had recently been featured in “Life” about his adventures in China, Tibet and Mongolia, started courting Susanne. The two married in 1951 at her parent’s Quaker Meeting in Chicago and finished their graduate studies at Berkeley while sharing their home with a Mongolian Lama, Dilawa Gehgan.
The next fifteen years were busy living in Texas, Wisconsin, Taiwan, and Montana to pursue their academic careers, while having six children. In 1961 their son, Harry, died of an autoimmune disease at 3 years old. The devastated family went for a year to Taiwan (ROC) on grants given to both Frank (land reform) and Susanne (Taiwanese children’s art.)
The family moved to Missoula in 1965, when Frank accepted a position in the Anthropology Department at the University of Montana. Susanne was a faculty affiliate and taught occasional anthropology courses. Susanne and her architect friend Daphne Jones designed a house that the family built in the Lower Rattlesnake Valley. Susanne had enjoyed organizing exhibits at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, and continued to curate exhibits in Missoula, including the Chinese Great Hall, Persian Rugs, Nigerian Masks, and Hmong Embroideries. She published “Embroidered Hmong Story Clothes” and also, with her husband and daughter Joan, published “Death on the Chang Tang, Tibet, 1950: the Education of an Anthropologist”.
Susanne spoke fluent German and English and studied Chinese with Father Wang. She was an avid reader—especially of new archeological findings and developments in anthropology. She loved to paint watercolors and enjoyed long conversations—the more tangents the better. She listened religiously to the BBC and NPR and watched PBS (which she loved). She cherished her friends and the adventures that they shared hiking, crossing-country skiing, and swimming all over western Montana. She was a long-time member of the Wednesday Outdoor Women (WOWs) and as a member of the League of Women Voters, assisted with the 1972 Montana Constitution. She was active with various groups settling refugees.
A devoted wife and mother, Susanne is preceded in death by her husband Frank, her son Harry, and her sister Dorothee Perloff, M.D. She is survived by 5 children: Barbara Tracy (David), Andrea Maxeiner (James), Turan Albini (Martin), Joan Steelquist (Mark) and Bret Bessac; 8 grandchildren: Katherine Maxeiner, Philip-Peter Maxeiner, Fiona Jallings (Sofia), Jethro Albini, Ivan Albini (Audrey), Reuben Steelquist, Frances Steelquist (Clay) and Mikaela Bessac, and 2 step grandchildren: Josh Tracy (Antonia) and Willow Tracy (Douglas). She is also survived by her first great-grand child, Jackson Albini, who was born the same night that she died.
A celebration of life will take place during the summer in Missoula. In lieu of flowers, please make contributions to the University of Montana, Department of Anthropology Scholarships.
Condolences may be posted at www.sunsetfuneralhomecemetery.com