First female Hero Fund investigator retires after 34 years

Susan M. Rizza became the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission’s first female case investigator in August 1989.

Rizza grew up in Cheswick, Pa., near the site of the Harwick Mine Disaster. After an explosion in the mine left 179 dead, Daniel A. Lyle and Selwyn M. Taylor both came from elsewhere to enter the mine and search for survivors. They both died in the rescue attempts. When Hero Fund founder philanthropist/ industrialist Andrew Carnegie heard of this heroism, he was touched and had medals privately minted for the heroes’ families. Just four months later the Hero Fund was born. Rizza said she didn’t know of the disastrous event until she was called to interview at the non-profit, which at that point was 85 years old.

“I later learned that a lot of my friends and classmates had relatives like fathers and grandfathers that worked (at the mine),” she said.

Prior to her hiring at the Hero Fund,Rizza had been working as a news and features writer for a local publication, but knew that she wanted a more fulfilling job. And she said case investigation has been very gratifying for her.

“I think it’s fascinating the courageous things that they do,” Rizza said. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Colleague Chris Foreman, who worked alongside Rizza as a case investigator, said that her love of her job was evident from his first interview with the organization.

“Even then, two decades into her tenure – helped to show me that there was a great team here doing terrific work,” Foreman said.

During Rizza’s 34-year career at the Hero Fund, she said she investigated more than 600 cases.

“Susan went about her daily work for many years with unfaltering zeal, focus, professionalism, and objectivity, but also with a very real sense of empathy for those involved in the cases she investigated for the Hero Fund,” said Eric Zahren, Hero Fund president. “And in Susan’s case, as the Commission’s first female case investigator, she brought a new and distinct perspective that has since served to guide others in the work; male and female alike.”

Up until the time of Rizza’s hire, Hero Fund investigations were done at the site of the rescue, and investigators, known then as “field agents,” traveled nine months out of the year.

“They were mostly single young men,” Rizza said.

Rizza credits her love of writing leading her to case investigation.

“I always loved to read and write. It’s not what I always planned on doing, but when I got into college, I took literature and writing classes,” she said.

She declared her English major at the end of her sophomore year, with a minor in writing. After graduating from Mercyhurst College (now University), she worked as a writer for a few publications.

Investigating acts of heroism was a bit different than her prior writing, but she didn’t find it a daunting task, she said.

“I always enjoyed doing human interest stories,” Rizza said. “It wasn’t really challenging for me. I was used to interviewing people. It was definitely a change to talk to people all over the country and Canada.”

Not all of the stories had happy endings, with a rescuer, victim, or sometimes both, dying in the rescue.

“The most difficult thing was to talk to people who have lost loved ones or if the (victim) died,” she said. “It’s really hard. You never know what to expect or if they are going to be able to talk about it.”

Investigations Manager Joe Mandak, Rizza’s supervisor, said that her empathy was evident in her work.

“My biggest takeaway from Susan’s work is that she cared. She cared about the folks being rescued. She cared about their families. She cared about the nominees – whether they were eventually awarded or not,” Mandak said. “She did not want our investigative process to be unpleasant or disturbing to them, even when she had to gather unpleasant or disturbing facts or descriptions that are required for a nominated rescuer to be awarded.”

Rizza’s caring nature extended not only to the people involved in the rescue, but also to the foundation: “On a personal level, it would be hard to find a nicer or more thoughtful co-worker. Through the years, I found myself bouncing over to her office to ask her about rescues that might have been similar to cases I had,” Foreman said.

Asked if any cases stick out in her mind, she said recently awarded Fairuz Jane Schlecht, left an impression on her. In this case, Schlecht rescued three children, ages 9, 6, and 5, from a burning apartment building in Newport Beach, California.

“I think it’s because it’s fresh in my mind, and (the rescue) was truly amazing,” Rizza said. “She went back into (the building), and she was so close to that fire. She just wasn’t giving up. She kept going,” she said.

Rizza’s last day at the Hero Fund was March 27, and staff celebrated with her at a luncheon in downtown Pittsburgh.

In her retirement, she said she plans to read, travel, work out at her local gym, and take some life enrichment classes at a nearby university.

Rizza lives with Paul Rizza, her husband of nearly 14 years, in their Wexford home.

— Missy A. McLaughlin, Case Investigator