Area’s first female photographer has traveled the world, endured heart-breaking life challenges
By Natalie M. Rotunda
Love for family, love for photography, and love for travel have made Sue Dropp’s world go round. But when David, one of her sons, suffered a brain injury in a car accident about 21 years ago, Sue and her family’s world changed forever. Through it all, she has endured and thrived with a positive approach to life and her love for family, photography, and travel.
When a person first meets Sue, she gives a cheery greeting, she smiles, and they smile back. Sue likes people, and they like her back. But Sue hasn’t been making people smile just in her every day life. She has also been bringing out smiles in people for years... as part of her long career in photography. In fact, Sue was the first known professional photographer in the St. Cloud area.
Life began for Sue in Rozwell, New Mexico, where her dad, a military man, was stationed. But not for long. Two years in Rozwell, he retired, and the family moved to Hawaii, where he became a commercial airline pilot. They stayed in Hawaii for two years.
“He was looking for himself,” said Sue. Next they moved to California for a while.
“He had always wanted to own a farm,” she said, “and when he found a 50-acre farm near Backus, Minn., my parents, half-sister, two brothers and I made the farm our home.”
The chapter in Sue’s life involving farming was about to end when she graduated from Pine River High School and headed for St. Cloud State University (SCSU).
Denmark, here we come!
It was the right time, right place for Sue at SCSU. They had inaugurated their travel abroad program in her sophomore year, and she and 119 other students signed on.
“It was part of the reason I was bitten by the travel bug,” she said.
For $2,000, the students lived and studied in Denmark for nine months.
“Every weekend, we would travel Europe on our Euro Pass,” Sue said. “We went to Vienna, Munich for the Oktoberfest, Italy, France, Norway, Sweden, and most of the other countries.”
Sue hadn’t gotten into photography in a big way, yet, but she did have her point-and-shoot Kodak, and it traveled well to those places.
The focus of the program was language, geography, culture, and travel taught by SCSU professors. Classrooms were set up in a big community center in Fredericia.
Living arrangements were also covered by the fee, and they could either live in a hostel or with a family. Sue did both. For the first half of their stay, she lived with a young couple and their three children. She moved to the hostel to give another student the opportunity to live with the family.
“I later tried to find my family, but they had moved from the area by that time,” she said, regretfully.
They were the first group to go to Fredericia. Later groups went to Aalborg. “The people in Fredericia loved us,” she said. “We were always on the front page of the newspaper. They were excited to have us there.”
And the students were excited to be there!
“Those nine months made such an impression on our lives,” she said. “We’ve all become a family, and we’re all still very close. Usually 80 to 100 of us, and some spouses, meet up every year, over a weekend.”
Sue and her classmates settled back into college life here in the U.S. Then, one morning they woke up, and it was graduation day. Sue had majored in Mass Communications, Photojournalism, and Speech, and would use all of these skills throughout her professional life.
There was an unpleasant surprise awaiting her, however. As the ink dried on her new diploma, Sue discovered, “there were no jobs!”
The enterprising graduate ventured into wedding photography, her first business. “Can you believe I was charging $25 per wedding?”
She was successful.
“When I started my ‘real’ business, I continued to do weddings,” along with family portraiture and magazine photography.
Sue worked hard at pleasing her brides and grooms, but she needed a little “me time,” as well. One evening, she was at a downtown St. Cloud gathering when she met Dave, an affable fourth-grade teacher who hailed from the Iron Range. The two hit it off, kept seeing one another, and, eventually, the two married and had four children.
Back in the day, Sue had the distinction of being the first woman photographer in St.
Cloud. She gets a kick out of telling this story.
“Dave went with me to weddings, and I would be asked how I liked working as a photographer’s assistant,” she said. “They thought I was his assistant!” Now, the profession is dominated by women.
As her talents and her reputation grew, Sue continued to work on two Professional Photographers of America masters degrees begun in the early ‘90s. “It takes a long time to get these degrees, and the work is intense,” she said. She holds a Master of Photography and a Photographic Craftsman Degree.
“It gives you that special education, and it makes the industry more professional,” she cited as reasons for pursuing the program.
How did she break through the first-woman photographer barrier?
“By being a good businesswoman,” Sue said, “as well as being a good photographer. I related well to children and to families.”
She advertised across in different areas and joined women’s organizations, like Zonta. “I like giving back to the community,” Sue said, “and volunteering around the community wherever I could.”
When the Central Minnesota Women’s Magazine publisher approached Sue about doing photography for the magazine, she happily agreed. “I loved doing that, working with other successful ladies. It was challenging to catch the spirit of the person and their environment, which were all different.”
Dave and Sue had bought a home near Crossroads, and as the business grew, they moved the family to the Westwood area, converting their former home into a big studio.
First one child, then two, then twins. Dave and Sue loved their young family of four, and they loved their work. He continued to teach, and she continued to take pictures. It was a busy but rewarding life for both of them. Life was good.
In 2000, David, one of the fraternal twins, was involved in a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was a teenager. Dave retired from teaching and looked after David for the 20 years.
“It’s a nightmare that never goes away,” Sue confided. “My retired husband took David to as many therapies as he could throughout the U.S. We hired people to help with David’s care. In 2017, Dave and Sue moved him to a group home.
“It’s hard to find a home where staff is familiar with traumatic brain injury,” she said.
In 2013, Dave was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“He passed away in 2020, at the age of 73,” Sue said. It was the day after their 40th wedding anniversary.
Throughout the 20+ years since David’s accident, Sue continued to work. “I still work a little, when old clients, friends, and family contact me. Officially, I’m not in business. It’s wonderful, though. It gets me out of the house, doing something I love.”
“David calls me 10 times a day to chitchat,” the devoted mother said. “You always think he’ll get better, but he never will.”
She brings him to her place every week. “I’m so concerned about him. Who will step in and give him all the compassion and love that he needs that I’m giving him now?”
Iceland, here we come!
Sue loves travel because “it puts us into touch with new cultures and interesting people.”
She and three good friends enjoyed such an experience recently when they visited Iceland for two weeks.
“It was the most magnificent trip I’ve ever been on in my life!” she exclaimed. “I probably took a thousand pictures on my phone and another thousand on my professional camera.”
“We went to every geothermal spa on the island,” she added. “It’s a major part of the culture.”
Beautiful people, colorful surroundings, and healthy people greeted them during their stay, a few reasons for a return trip.
A priceless gift
Sue’s countless files of negatives needed a home.
“It broke my heart to think about dumping all of those memories of people’s lives,” she said. She wondered if Stearns History Museum be interested in them? “Yes,” was the answer.
“They called the collection ‘priceless,’” a Sue smiled.
Early on, Sue blazed her own trail into the business world. Her talents enriched the lives of not only her clients but her cherished husband, children, grandchildren, and friends, as well. Generous with her time and skills, through joys and tragedies, this warm, caring person has more world to see and more pictures to take.