Sunday, July 24, 2022

In Memoriam: Susan Renaker Nikas (1940-2022)

I was honored to be invited to the memorial gathering in Claremont, California on July 24 for the woman who ran Hagen-Renaker, Inc. for so many years: Susan Renaker Nikas. Born in February 1940, she passed away in June of this year (2022).

Sue was remembered by all as a kind, forthright, and generous person. I corresponded with her first by mail and later via email, beginning in the early 1990s. Occasionally she would invite me to visit the Hagen-Renaker factory in San Dimas, and her home next door.

Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times did a good job of summarizing her life:

February 27, 1940 - June 10, 2022 Susan Renaker Nikas, 82, passed away at her home in San Dimas, California from congestive heart failure. She was an intelligent, talented, and generous woman who remained active running the family business and writing and recording songs until the last six months of her life. Susan was one of four children of Maxine and John Renaker. At 18 she traveled to England to try her hand at being a folksinger. Later she met her husband Theodore Nikas while performing at his coffee house The Prison of Socrates in Balboa. After her daughter started school, Susan obtained her teaching credential and became a U.S. History teacher. 

In the late 1970s, she went to work in the family business, eventually becoming the CEO of Hagen-Renaker, Inc. Over the years, she worked hard to maintain the tradition of quality of the ceramic figurines the 75-year-old company produced. They were featured in an article in the LA Times, an exhibit at Cal Poly Pomona, and numerous publications aimed at the dedicated collector community. 

In the late 1980s, she also returned to her musical roots, forming the popular bluegrass band, Clay County, which performed at festivals and released numerous CDs. Even after Clay County ceased performing, she continued writing songs and releasing solo albums, the last being "Too Late Now," released in 2021. 

Susan will be sorely missed by family and friends. She was predeceased by her parents and older brother, Jim, and is survived by her twin brother David, sister Mary, daughter Ekaterine Nikas Terlinden, son-in-law Donald, and grandchildren Elizabeth and William Terlinden.

Some of my most recent and best memories of Sue revolved around the exhibit "Miniature Menageries: The History and Artists Behind Hagen-Renaker, Inc." which ran for 18 months in 2018-2019 at the W. K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Library. 

WKKAHL is part of the Special Collections Unit at the Cal Poly Pomona University Library; Special Collections focuses on local history. As a family-owned business that operated from right after World War II to the end of 2021, Hagen-Renaker certainly qualified as "local history." As well, several real horses with connections to the CPP property -- once the W. K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Ranch -- inspired Hagen-Renaker horse figurine designs by artist Maureen Love. 

Hagen-Renaker horse designs at the "Miniature Menageries" exhibit. The dapple gray "Encore" and palomino "Tria" were loaned from Sue's collection.  The reproductions of Maureen Love's art were provided by Share The Love. The other horses were from my own collection.

Sue very generously loaned many priceless pieces from her own collection for the exhibit, along with one-of-a-kind photographs and company paper ephemera. (I'll share a link to my blog post on the exhibit below.)  When the Library held an opening reception for the exhibit, Sue brought her guitar and sang for us.

Interim Dean Emma Gibson, collector Claudia Segger, Head of Special Collections Katie Richardson, Susan Renaker Nikas with her guitar, assistant archivist Elizabeth Hernandez, collector Melanie Teller, and collector Dawn Sinkovich of Share The Love, at the opening reception for "Miniature Menageries" in May 2018.

The exhibit was strategically timed to coincide with a large model horse collector gathering in Southern California, Clinky Mayhem 2018. This meant that many people who collect Hagen-Renaker figurines could also see the exhibit.

Sue did more for the model horse hobby than many collectors realize. Others will be able to provide more examples, but I can give two. In the late 1990s, Sue asked hobbyists to submit names for new "Specialty" horse models and gave each winner a test color piece of each horse. (I helped her coordinate the contests.) 

In 2018, Sue donated many "factory second" miniature and Specialty animal figurines to the W. K. Kellogg Arabian Horse Library, so they could resell them to raise funds for the Library.  Cal Poly Pomona students and faculty bought many of them, and collectors who visited the exhibit during Clinky Mayhem had the opportunity to purchase little grab bags with one or two tiny figurines inside. 

The same year, members of the Hagen-Renaker Collectors Club entered a drawing to be able to purchase one of six overrun "Skywalker" models from the 1998 HRCC Special Run of that mold. Proceeds went to the Club. 

Sue was devoted to her family's business, and we as collectors are so much the better for her dedication. She will be deeply missed, not only by her family, her friends, and her fellow musicians, but by many in the Hagen-Renaker collecting community.

Thank you, Sue, for everything.


Here's my summary of the "Miniature Menageries" exhibit:

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