Susan Kottler: Culture, education and compassion motivate work as volunteer, docent

Susan Kottler has been a docent at many of St. Louis’ major cultural institutions, including the St. Louis Zoo.

By BILL MOTCHAN, Special to the Jewish Light

Chat for a while with Susan Kottler and you’ll learn something new about St. Louis history. Or the St. Louis Zoo or the St. Louis Art Museum or the Pulitzer Arts Foundation or the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Kottler has been a docent at all four institutions.

Kottler loves the learning part of being a docent as much as the teaching part. Her enthusiasm about the local arts scene is infectious, too. A good example is the noteworthy exhibit “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds” that runs through Sept. 9 at the Art Museum.

“We’re so lucky to have this exhibit at the museum,” Kottler said. “This is the type of thing you’d see at the Met in New York. We’re the first North American museum to get it. I said that to a group of kids recently, ‘You might not realize how important and special this exhibit is. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity!’ ”

A docent often finds satisfaction from sharing information with others, she said.

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“Being a docent combines your love of art and history with giving your passion to someone else and giving them something to enjoy that they not have been aware of before,” Kottler said. “You hope to get the aha moment. When you look at art, it helps to figure out why the artist painted it and what was going on in the world when he painted it that made him capture the scene. If I can help the kids or adults see something they hadn’t seen before, that for me is an aha moment.”

Kottler earned her master’s degree in education at Washington University and added on a program teaching English as a second language. That came in handy later when she volunteered for seven years as an ESL instructor at the International Institute.

In 2008, Kottler was part of the first docent class at the Mercantile Library, a hidden gem tucked away in the lower level of the main University of Missouri-St. Louis library. Kottler has been a tireless volunteer, according to Julie Dunn-Morton, endowed curator of the library’s fine art collections.

“She has been a dedicated member of the docent corps, serving as an ambassador for the library,” Dunn-Morton said. “Susan brings incredible enthusiasm and charm to all her interactions with Mercantile guests, whether on her tours or at our educational programs. She connects easily with a broad range of visitors and conveys information about the library’s history and collections in a friendly and accessible manner, so that everyone feels welcome and comfortable. At our annual Print Fair, Susan has staffed the book sale, the membership desk and virtually any other area that needs help.”

While Kottler loves teaching, her volunteer activities go well beyond docent responsibilities. She began giving tours at the Zoo in 1990 and, after a decade sharing her wisdom and spending time with animals, she helped plan and host two signature fundraising events: A Zoo Ado and Zoofari. She chaired the A Zoo Ado committee and has co-chaired the food committee for Zoofari for the past eight events. Kottler also served on the Zoo Friends Association board. This level of volunteer engagement is essential for the Zoo, according to Mollie Corum, director of special events.

“Susan’s dedication and support to the St. Louis Zoo is invaluable,” Corum said. “Her love for the Zoo shines brightly as she helps to plan our major events and fundraisers. She is always so thoughtful of our guests and will do everything in her power to give them the best experience. Zoo staff and volunteers alike love working with Susan and appreciate her thoughtful nature. She is a true asset to the Zoo community.”

Kottler and her husband, Stan, attend Central Reform Congregation. She works two days a week as a travel agent at TravelMasters. While she loves the travel business, her part-time work enables her to keep up her busy volunteer schedule. One of her regular weekly stops is on Mondays at Food Outreach. She has volunteered there for 17 years and has developed and fostered friendships with clients, who include people living with HIV/AIDS or cancer. The executive director of Food Outreach, Julie Pole, said Kottler has special qualities that make her an ideal volunteer.

“Susan is committed and dependable,” Pole said. “Having dependable volunteers coming in on an important day when we serve a hot lunch to our clients, some 30 to 50 people, means that operationally, thanks to Susan, we can serve a hot meal to those people and their guests. Susan is a very familiar and kind and friendly volunteer.

“It adds such a level of thoughtfulness to service. Our clients, because of their struggles and income levels, normally don’t get to eat in a restaurant, and Susan is part of a team of volunteers who serve a three-course meal. She does it with a great deal of consideration and kindness, and that’s priceless in a volunteer. Our clients have many, many battles and struggles, and Susan’s level of service makes a difference in our humanity.”

Kottler serves as an inspiration for others, including her children. Her daughter Bonnie Mann puts it very simply: “She has a zest for life!” 

If you ask Kottler why she volunteers, she is quick to respond: “Every day is different. Life is a party, and I want to be a part of it. I made a commitment to myself to try and be in the mainstream of life and be a part of life, and for me that meant volunteering in the community. I wanted my children to have a sense of it’s not just us, it’s all of us. We’re very fortunate, but there are some who aren’t so fortunate, and we have to give what we can, and sometimes all that needs to be is a smile and a hug.”