By J.K. Dineen
San Francisco Examiner Staff Writer
SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, CA - From little league championship games to political rallies to tragic house fires, Susan Caldwell captured the pulse of the Peninsula for 16 years as a staff photographer at the Independent and Examiner newspapers.
But in South San Francisco, where she lived with her 14-year-old daughter Nina Garrison, Caldwell was more than a photojournalist. She and her daughter were the very heart of the community.
"You saw them at just about every event, just in the middle of everything," said South San Francisco City Councilmember Karyl Matsumoto. "It was a great mother-daughter relationship."
Caldwell, 41, and Garrison died Sunday in South San Francisco when a van driven by Wen Mei, 37, smashed head-on into their sedan as they drove up a steep hill. The mother and daughter, both animal lovers, were en route to Cow Palace to see a dog show. Caldwell died instantly, while Garrison was pronounced dead at San Francisco General Hospital several hours later. Police say Mei is still in the intensive care unit of San Francisco General Hospital and could face vehicular manslaughter charges for his role in the fatal crash.
A photojournalism scholarship fund has been established in Caldwell's honor (see details below).
Bryan Kilfoil, Caldwell's domestic partner who lived with the mother and daughter, said Caldwell had lost her own mother at age 9 and "wanted to give Nina all that she could." Caldwell had been married briefly to Garrison's biological father.
"We wanted to make as happy a home here in South San Francisco as we could," said Kilfoil. "They were both really bright stars."
Caldwell and Garrison both loved the outdoors and were vegetarians. The day before they died, both had satisfying days, Kilfoil said. Caldwell went to the Don Edwards Wildlife Refuge to photograph wildlife. Garrison saw Aliens Of The Deep, an IMAX movie about the mysteries of the ocean.
"Afterwards she said she wanted to go into marine biology," said Kilfoil. "She was always so excited about something. There was nothing she couldn't have done."
Caldwell grew up in Cupertino and graduated from Cupertino High School and the San Francisco Art Institute. Garrison was on the soccer team and played saxophone in the school band.
Soccer coach Ken Anderson called Garrison "the perfect teammate," keeping the team loose with her sense of humor, and volunteering to play goalie when nobody else was "brave enough to take it on." On Monday afternoon, Nina's soccer teammates held a memorial on the soccer field.
"You could have the worst attitude and she would make you laugh," said teammate Holly Anderson.
Sophomore Lisa Mazzanti said, "You couldn't do anything to make her mad. She could make a friend in about five seconds."
Ashley Bonillas remembered Garrison's loud, distinctive laugh.
"It's hard for us -- we all feel so empty and scared and confused," said Bonillas.
After 16 years of covering the Peninsula, Caldwell was a walking repository of community contacts, according to Barbara Backer, a former editor.
"There cannot be that many people on the entire Peninsula who didn't know her," said Backer.
Caldwell understood "community life and community journalism," Backer said.
"If that had been another accident, she would have been at it taking pictures," said Backer.
(Editor's Note: This story was reprinted with permission of The San Francisco Examiner and author J.K. Dineen. A photojournalism scholarship fund has been established in Caldwell's honor. Checks made payable to the Susan Jean Caldwell Memorial Scholarship Fund can be sent c/o US Bank, Attn.: Teresa Adam, 50 N. Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay, CA, 94019. The Nina Patricia Garrison Memorial Fund has been established to provide a memorial bench at the San Francisco Zoo's nature trail. Checks made payable to the "San Francisco Zoo" can be sent to 1 Zoo Road, San Francisco, CA, 94132. Write "ARC in memory of Nina Garrison" on the memo line of the check.)