In the first of an occasional series on partners, reporter BELINDA STRAHORN talks to Susan Cantwell, wife of ACT Electoral Commissioner Damian Cantwell.
THE first thing you feel when you meet Susan Cantwell, 55, is her warmth. It beams from within and fills the room. There’s her big, blissed-out smile, which makes her eyes crimple, and the way she makes conversation so easily it feels like you’re old friends.
She’s a short lady, impeccably dressed and seems fit enough to race in a marathon. But to do that, feels like I’d be doing her a discredit. In the end, the way she looks is not half as interesting as who she is, what she does and the kindness that’s evident in her daily life.
Susan is the wife of ACT Electoral Commissioner Damian Cantwell. They are a closely-knit team and one can’t help but think of them as two halves of the same coin. Damian, a retired army brigadier and his wife have been a devoted couple ever since they met on a blind date in 1986 during Susan’s first year as a cadet at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Canberra.
“Do you believe in fate?” Susan asks me as we sit down to chat in the boardroom of the ACT Electoral Commission.
“I do,” she says smiling, going on to explain the fortuitous events that led to her meeting Damian.
“When you first arrive at RMC you go to the Q-stores to collect all the things you’ll need… this is before I had met Damian by the way.
“First, I picked up a webbing belt, it had the surname CANTWELL on it, then I picked up a cup, CANTWELL it read, and when I picked up a canteen it said CANTWELL. I remember thinking to myself what are the chances of picking up the same person’s gear?
“Anyway, the year went by and in December I was invited by some friends to attend their RMC graduation, it was a blind date. When I arrived, Damian approached me and said: “Hello I’m your date, my name is Damian Cantwell”.
“CANTWELL… It’s you,” Susan giggled.
“We hit it off, but Damian went back to Puckapunyal, he was a lieutenant at that time, and I went on with my course at RMC.
“I sent him a card soon after we met with a picture of a tank on it. ‘Tanks for a lovely time’ it said… he’s still got it.”
It’s been quite the adventure for the couple who went on to marry in 1987 in an old church in a sheep paddock at Emu Flat, Victoria.
They welcomed a son, Jacob, in 1990 and a daughter, Sarah, in 1993 and while Susan’s career in the Army was short-lived, deciding to join the defence force public service instead, her biggest role has been the supporting act she performs for her “soulmate” husband whose illustrious career has taken the family all over the world.
“Damian has done so very well, and I have always been happy to give him my support,” Susan says.
“It’s never been a case of playing second fiddle, in fact Damian would cringe at that, we are such a partnership, we do everything equally together and I don’t mind doing what I do because I believe I am with the person I am meant to be with, and nothing will get in the way of that.”
The couple have been married for 33 years, moved 27 times and spent 37 years in the Defence Forces, with Damian’s postings including chief of defence force’s liaison officer to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon, a trainer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies.
While it’s clear their marriage is a partnership, at times Susan has made sacrifices for her husband to take on interesting and challenging roles.
“One of the sacrifices you make of being a defence family is there was no opportunity for promotion for me because I’d keep leaving jobs,” Susan says.
“At times I have felt marginalised in some of the jobs I’ve taken, I know that I am capable of quite a bit.”
But there have been times when the stars have aligned for Damian and Susan’s respective careers when both occupied interesting posts at the same time.
“The best job I got was in the states at the Australian embassy in Washington. Spouses are given a priority for the jobs, so I was lucky enough to get an admin job for the defence attaché and for Damian who was chief defence force liaison officer to the joint chief of staff at the Pentagon. I liaised with staff in the Pentagon and much to Damian’s disgust they would always answer my calls and not his.”
Being married to the army means signing on to a busy, disciplined and hectic life. Much of their time has been spent attending functions and entertaining diplomats, dignitaries and Prime Ministers on behalf of the chief of the army and chief of defence.
But the community work Susan’s been engaged in has brought her the most pleasure.
“I helped run the US wounded warrior events, it’s such an inspirational thing to do,” Susan says.
“The veterans were amazing. There was one fellow who lost both legs from a mine, it was horrendous, but he was a character. He was so positive, it felt really good to help.”
Kindness has always been a part of Susan’s life. There’s her country upbringing, growing up on a farm near Trundle in western NSW and her charity work including time spent working at an op shop in Leavenworth US, and helping with Meals on Wheels at Queenscliff, Victoria.
But it’s the adversities in her personal life that have given her the empathy to relate to others.
“In 2005 I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer which was a huge shock,” Susan says.
“I was a fit and healthy 40-year-old and then boom… three tumours at once. It was a nasty cancer, grade three, but luckily it hadn’t spread.
“So, after two years of treatment and losing my hair, I came out the other side and boy did it feel like spring.”
Facing her biggest personal challenge, Damian was beside her side throughout.
“He is the most amazing person, and this still chokes me up today,” Susan says, wiping away a tear.
“It got to the stage where he wasn’t allowed to take me in for chemo anymore because he was so close to me when they were administering the chemo that his hair started to fall out. He was being affected by the chemo, too.
“That was hard not having him there but I’m here today, 15 years in remission and feeling fantastic.”
In a lifetime packed full of events and functions, the good overwhelmingly outnumbers the bad and Susan has many happy memories of the VIPs she’s met along the way.
“The Queen is the most beautiful woman,” Susan says.
“She is very tiny and has the most beautiful skin I have ever seen, it’s like cream.
“Prince Philip lives true to his character. They were very interesting to talk to and they just wanted to talk to the antipodeans. We were very much a novelty because we were the only Australians at Sandhurst.
“That was a fun time.”
Damian’s career has taken him all over the world, including deployments to Afghanistan. Susan and the family have had to adapt; it’s been worthwhile, but hasn’t always been easy.
“On our first overseas posting to the UK in 1991 we had our six-month-old baby Jacob. Damian was a captain then,” Susan says.
“It’s got its ups and downs, it is difficult, but defence is like a big family.”
In 2017 Damian left the Army and succeeded long-time ACT Electoral Commissioner Phillip Green. Transitioning out of the Army and into civilian life has had its challenges.
“Going through this first election, I was more stressed than I’ve ever been, because we wanted it to work, but now it’s all over, and the journey really has been very positive,” says Susan.
It’s clear that if duty is her first call, then family is her second. Her son Jacob, now 30, is an actor and daughter Sarah, 27, is an environmental scientist. Susan says the key to her successful marriage is learning to listen.
“I’m his confidant, he can trust me,” she says.
“We really are a partnership. In the embassy when I was working for Damian, so many people would say, ‘How could you work for your husband?’, but I thought it was fantastic, it’s like the devil you know. I’m always one step ahead of him because I know how he thinks and I know what has to be done and I’ll do it before there are any arguments.”
Susan and Damian find space for themselves – literally – by road tripping on a motorbike. As a country girl, Susan’s love for wide open spaces is unconditional, so too her animated knack at retelling stories of their motorbike adventures, which have taken them across the US as well as here at home, crossing the Nullarbor Plain.
“I can honestly say I’ve had the best life… it’s been an absolute adventure,” she says.
“I’m so lucky to have met Damian… I’m truly blessed.”