St. Mary of the Assumption couple being honored by Catholic Charities founded SmartDrive Foundation
WILMINGTON — Pete and Susan Booker have had the urge to serve others going back nearly 50 years in three states, and next month, they will be recognized for all of that service.
The Bookers, members of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Hockessin, will receive the Msgr. Thomas J. Reese Award from Catholic Charities at the organization’s annual tribute dinner on April 5. It recognizes those who have demonstrated “a deep commitment to promoting and restoring the well-being of people,” which is Catholic Charities’ mission.
The couple has long given to their communities, whether in Delaware, Michigan or Virginia, where Pete’s radio career took him over a career spanning nearly 50 years. They founded the SmartDrive Foundation in 2004 and have been its motivating force since.
SmartDrive was born out of a tragic accident involving students at Salesianum School, where their son, Julian, was a student. Two students were killed and another injured, and Pete Booker attended one of the funerals at the school. People – mostly students from Salesianum, but also from other schools – filled the auditorium and classrooms, where the ceremony was televised on the school’s station.
“Pete was so moved by the reaction of the kids and the real tragedy of the whole situation,” Susan recalled. “He decided he wanted to do something to help prevent this from happening again.”
“We were just really struck by their grief and their disconnect,” Pete continued. “Kids just aren’t supposed to die. So we tried to do something to address that.”
He used his connections through Delmarva Broadcasting to find people who had something to do with driver safety. They put together a working group and came up with the idea of SmartDrive, which debuted in high schools in 2005.
Over the past 12 years, SmartDrive has expanded to include lessons for students and their parents. It operates in four states. It is divided into regions – northern Delaware, southern Delaware and elsewhere. Through videos, traffic games and other programs, students can earn points, “and the top-point-getter in each region can earn a scholarship for college,” Pete said.
One of the games, he explained, is called “Distraction and Reaction.” Students drive around a parking lot in a golf cart with cones set up. The driver is asked to do certain tasks, such as spell his or her name backward or give their zip code, to see how easy it is to get distracted behind the wheel.
“It’s a fun thing and everybody laughs, but the kids get it,” he said.
Another part of the program is the SmartDrive PROMise, which was added in 2011. The upcoming prom and graduation season is the most dangerous for teens on the road, Susan said.
From January through the end of March, students are encouraged to visit the PROMise section of the SmartDrive website and sign that they will agree to eight safe-driving practices, such as always wearing a seatbelt, never driving impaired or with an impaired driver.
“One thing we’d like to do is put some responsibility on the passengers as well as the driver. We want the passengers to understand that they have a role in the safety of the vehicle,” Susan said.
“They sign the promise online, and we go into their school with a big banner. Anyone who signed the promise gets to sign the banner. The school hangs it up in a very prominent place as a constant reminder. Our goal is to keep the safe and responsible driving message in front of them.”
Knew Msgr. Reese
Susan has long been connected to Catholic Charities. Her first job out of college was at Seton Villa in north Wilmington, where Msgr. Reese was the chaplain.
“I always had such admiration for him that it makes it more of an honor,” she said.
She is amazed at the work Catholic Charities does and at its reach.
“I’m always amazed when I think about what Catholic Charities, not only in our diocese but around the world, does for so many people,” she said. “It’s incredible. I don’t know that you can find any other organization that provides so much service to people in need. That’s one of the things that always draws me to Catholic Charities.”
Her husband echoed that sentiment.
“There’s a lot of energy within various Catholic organizations for social justice. And that’s a big thing for us. Catholic Charities to me lives that every day on the street. The stuff that they do, it’s amazing,” he said.
Susan worked with some schools in Virginia while Pete worked there in radio, and once they moved back to Wilmington in 1993, she spent several years at Ursuline Academy, which their daughter, Hilary, attended. Susan also was the development director at St. Paul’s Parish and school in Wilmington for five years. The school closed in 2011, but Pete said that would have been sooner had it not been for his wife.
“I like to say that through her efforts, the school stayed open probably five years longer than it would have otherwise. That was at the point where there had been some pretty generous funding from private sources – Mr. (Charles) Cawley (CEO of MBNA) and others. When MBNA went away and Bank of America came along and some other things happened, they didn’t have that funding,” he said.
Pete, who was president and chief executive of Delmarva Broadcasting from 1993 until his retirement in 2015, did some volunteering while at the University of Delaware, but it really picked up while he was a program director in Detroit.
“Being program director, you work with a lot of community groups anyway, started out doing their public service announcements and things like that. And then you get involved. It just kind of gradually increased. Susan was always ahead of me,” he said.
The Bookers serve on a variety of boards, both corporate and nonprofit. Susan is acting president and a board member of Mass for the Homeless/Music with a Mission, which will present a spring concert April 30 at the Laird Center for the Performing Arts at Tatnall School. Wilmington native Wilson Somers, a jazz musician and vocalist, is the featured performer. The beneficiary of the concert changes each year; this time, it happens to be Catholic Charities.