Susan Walton started planning her charity, Suited for Success, in the early 1990s, sketching out an idea to collect used suits and blouses from working women and then distribute them to needy recipients who can't afford professional outfits for job interviews.
It took until 1997, however, for Walton to gather her first donations and finally open for business.
In between, she was busy fighting for her life.
Walton was grievously wounded in the Oklahoma City bombing, a victim caught, like so many others, in the wrong place at the wrong time. She happened to be visiting the federal employees' credit union, on the third floor of the Murrah Federal Building, to make a deposit into her account at the moment when the bomb went off.
Walton has no memory of that April day in 1995, and she thinks that is for the best considering how close she came to dying. She suffered a basal skull fracture, nerve damage behind both eyes, multiple jaw fractures, a broken nose, a ruptured spleen, two crushed legs and severe damage to her left ankle.
A doctor at the scene who first treated her, Walton said, later told her that "he broke all rules of triage to do anything to me. That's how far gone I was."
Five weeks of hospitalization and 15 surgeries ensued, followed by five years of physical therapy. For three months, Walton had to wear special metal braces pinned through her flesh into the bones of her legs in 66 places. Every six hours, a doctor came in with a wrench to expand the braces and stretch her bones in an excruciating procedure.
Today, Walton, 54, must walk with either a cane or crutches. Her left ankle is fused solid. If she falls, she is in trouble: Her knees no longer bend enough to allow her to get up.
Yet she evinces no anger about what happened to her.
"It's kind of hard to be angry about something you don't remember," Walton said. "That's just not normally something I tried to deal with. I tried to focus on getting well and moving on with my life and helping others and paying back the society for the help that was given to me. There was no room for anger."
Walton has no idea how much that help cost. At the time of the bombing, she was back in school, working on a degree she had long put on hold to raise her family, and had no health insurance. But thanks to the Red Cross, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and, later Medicare, Walton said she never had to pay a medical bill. The Lions Club bought her a handicapped-equipped van.
She finally finished the degree, in administrative leadership, in 2003.
Because her wounds and her leg braces were so visually disturbing, federal prosecutors asked Walton to testify at the murder trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the two perpetrators of the bombing.
Yet sitting in a witness box just a few feet from her assailants provoked not rage in Walton but "heartbreak that this young man [McVeigh] chose that way to express his opinion about the way things were going in the country."
Walton's determination to open her clothing charity was born of her experience as a single mother working in entry-level positions in several banks and having to choose between shoes for her children or work attire for herself.
"Usually, the kids won," she said.
She began collecting clothing and cash donations, and officials of Catholic Charities donated some space in their Oklahoma City office. Last year, Walton suited her 2,000th client, and the charity will soon move to larger quarters so it can expand.
Donors tell Walton she is an inspiration, but she says she doesn't understand why.
"I'm not sure what other people are seeing," she said. "I just get up and put one foot in front of the other every day just like everyone else. I think that the good Lord gave us a spirit to survive and keep going. Most of us choose that option."
About the writer
A decade ago, Howard Witt, now the Tribune's Southwest bureau chief, covered the Oklahoma City bombing. Over the past year, he has returned to the city repeatedly to examine the long-term fallout from the tragedy. Previously, Witt was the Tribune's chief diplomatic correspondent based in Washington. He has also been stationed in Toronto, Johannesburg and Moscow as a Tribune foreign correspondent and in Los Angeles as bureau chief. He joined the Tribune as an intern in 1982. He can be contacted at email@example.com.