COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — There was nothing Susan Castore loved to do more, say her friends, than give kindness to everyone — without exception.
“She was on a mission. She spread compassion kindness, and hope around Ohio, and she was very organized about this, and determined,” said Becky Allen, who knew Castore as the A-OK Lady through Simply Living, a group that aims at “creating a compassionate and sustainable world” in central Ohio.
One Sunday afternoon at about 2:30 p.m. in October 2020, someone in the house of Susan Castore, 75, and her long-term partner John Blanc, 77, made a hang-up call to 911. Franklin County deputies rushed to the home on Carilla Lane and found Blanc stabbed. Castore appeared to have been strangled.
Kelly Vokas, currently on trial for the couple’s murder, was seen through a window, according to police. The indictment accuses Vokas of trying to rob Castore and Blanc. The Franklin County prosecutor charged Vokas with murder, aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, burglary and tampering with evidence.
Vokas’ next court date will be August 11 at 9am, 345 South High Street, 5th Floor.
Vokas knew Castore and Blanc as the couple’s next-door neighbor, according to a Franklin County prosecutor’s October 2020 media release on the killings.
The way Susan and John died is difficult for their friends to reconcile with the lives they strived to live. Blanc helped in soup kitchens; Susan traveled Ohio as the A-OK Lady spreading a message of kindness.
“Susan had layers and layers of complexity,” said Marilyn Welker, founder and former president of Simply Living, “and there was nothing she wanted more than to meet people at a heart level. But there were difficult times for her, and she would go silent.”
These difficult times were periods of mental illness; childhood had been rough for Castore, says Welker. “She had a very troubled childhood. She was abused in many different ways. And she had mental illness as a result of it.
Blanc, too, faced childhood hardships, says Welker: “John had a very similar childhood in extreme poverty. He was a Marine in the Vietnam war. John was a vulnerable person, and he gave to the community. He worked for years as a food volunteer at a soup kitchen doing what he loved to do, which was to cook food.
“So the two of them understood each other and had such grace and kindness in recognizing that they were broken, you know, and it was OK.”
This acceptance was deeply part of Castore. “She just knew that what we think and how we feel matters, and so she worked every morning.
“She would read inspiration, read the Bible, meditate and pray. She never proselytized religion, always kindness. It was her willingness to let go of so much of what was painful and never let that define her, yet she knew who she was and never made a pretense of how broken she was. In the end that didn’t matter,” Welker said.
Allen remembers Castore at Whole Foods in the persona of the A-OK Lady (who called herself “Susann” starting in 2000, her friends recalled), passing out messages of kindness.
Allen doesn’t think Castore thought about the risks of opening herself up to strangers. “I don’t think she thought about risk. She was driven to get her message out. She dreamed of waves of compassion spreading across the state of Ohio, and that Ohio would be an example for other states. It’s inspirational to me.”
But how does a friend reconcile a person whose life was so giving and compassionate to the brutal death that she, and the man she loved, experienced? The answers for Welker are thorny and complex, tied up with Castore’s awareness of her own deteriorating mental health.
“Susan’s way of being in the world was to live every day fully,” Welker said slowly, grappling with the question. “I feel … thankfully, her end was quick … She knew her brain didn’t function well, and it worried her deeply. Her questions about, ‘What will become for me when I get older?’ There is some grace that she didn’t have to live to answer those questions.”
A memorial service for John and Susan will be held Saturday, July 17 at Stratford Ecological Center, 3083 Liberty Road, Delaware. John Blanc will be honored at noon, and Susan Castore at 1 p.m. Two butternut walnut tree saplings have already been planted along a trail at SEC. The service will include laying a plaque at the base of each tree and sharing informally memories and stories about them.
“I would just say her relationship with John Blanc enabled her in ways that represents true love,” Welker reflected. “John was not part of her A-OK work, and that was fine with both of them. But there was an unconditional love that she had not really had. That gave her strength and power even above what she would have done by herself.”