Tough times have taught comedian's sister to love life
Elizabeth Colbert-Busch is Stephen Colbert's sister, and that's probably the least interesting thing about her.
Her father and two of her brothers were killed in a plane crash when she was 19. She was married to a man who ended up on "America's Most Wanted." And in 2001, while at a business conference in New York City, she was sitting in a building directly across the street from the World Trade Center when two jetliners slammed into its twin towers, forever changing the landscape of America.
But looking into her sparkling brown eyes, you'd never know this woman has seen enough tragedy for two lifetimes. Her infectious laugh fills the room as she talks about her children. Her face lights up every time she mentions Claus, her second husband and the man she calls the love of her life. And when she talks about her job, she speaks with a passion so great, you'd swear her boss was sitting next to her.
As director of business development for Clemson University's Restoration Institute, Colbert-Busch is, for lack of a better term, the school's corporate matchmaker. She finds companies that could benefit from the kind of advanced environmentally conscious research the university is doing -- wind turbine testing, water studies, different kinds of renewable energy -- and partners with them. More to the point, she asks them for money. In return, the corporations get the kind of cutting-edge information to help them stay one step ahead of the competition.
"It's a win-win situation," she says from a plush chair in her North Charleston office. "It's a fraction of the cost to them and it allows us to keep doing our research and keep growing."
FAMILY: Two sisters, six brothers; husband, Claus; children, Mary, Robert and Catherine; two grandchildren.
RESIDES: Mount Pleasant.
OCCUPATION: Director of business development for Clemson University's Restoration Institute.
ALMA MATER: College of Charleston.
ON GETTING AN EDUCATION: "As a young girl it was very important to be pretty and popular. I remember sitting down and having a conversation with my father -- they were rare because there were 11 of us -- and he said to me, 'LuLu, there's nothing sexier than an educated woman.' "
ON HER PERSONALITY: "I do not take personal affronts well and I do not take personal insults to my intelligence well. At all. You might as well call me ugly."
ON HER FIRST MARRIAGE: "It made me a stronger person. A very determined person. And I have three beautiful children as a result. I'm very grateful for that."
ON STEPHEN: "People always say to me, 'You must be so proud of your brother.' And I tell them I am proud. But the thing I'm most proud of is being Jenna Lorna Colbert's daughter."
Her life has been a roller coaster -- some bad, mostly good, she'll tell you -- but it all has led her to this moment, this job.
Two strong mothers
Colbert-Busch experienced the pain of Sept. 11 long before the rest of the nation ever did.
On that date in 1974 her father, Dr. James W. Colbert, then-vice president for academic affairs at MUSC, along with her younger brothers Peter and Paul, were killed in a plane crash in Charlotte.
Colbert-Busch was a sophomore at the University of South Carolina at the time when she got a phone call.
She recounts: "Mom said, 'You need to come home and pick up your father and brothers in Charlotte. There's been an accident.'"
At the time, everybody thought it was a minor accident. But as Elizabeth and two other brothers, who both also went to USC, drove home, they listened to the radio. It was about this time that the seriousness of the situation began to take hold.
"I'll never forget it," she says, tears in her eyes, "we hit the Summerville line and the radio comes on and it's the list of survivors -- there are 13." She pauses for what seems like forever, before continuing: "They named them all. And that was it. The three of us kept screaming, 'Come on! Come on!' "
In the haze that followed, Colbert-Busch dropped out of school and came back to live with her mom and 10-year-old brother, Stephen. There, she enrolled in classes at the College of Charleston. Almost immediately she began dating a man she would later marry and have three children with. After a tumultuous eight years of marriage, Colbert-Busch finally broke things off.
"You have to do what you have to do," she says of her failed first marriage. "I got a divorce not because I wanted to but because I had to."
Her first husband appeared on "America's Most Wanted" in relation to a case about securities fraud. Though somewhat guarded about that relationship, she speaks with a clarity few people ever have: "My father and my brothers died and I guess I was searching for something. There was a hole in my life." She sighs and adds: "But it will never be filled."
Strong through it all was her mother, Lorna Colbert, a woman Colbert-Busch calls "the most amazing person in the world."
Together, they helped get Colbert-Busch's life back on track.
'Falling' in love
Though Colbert-Busch temporarily left Charleston looking for a job in Washington, D.C., her heart and family ties brought her back. After moving back in with her mother, Colbert-Busch decided to finish up a minor she never completed. It was during that time she met Claus Busch.
Part of the requirements of one of her business classes was a 10-day trip to Europe. While in Brussels, the group decided to check out a local festival. As Colbert-Busch was walking down a cobblestone street, she tripped and fell. But instead of hitting the ground, she found the arms of Busch.
"I looked up at him and thought, 'Oh, my God. This is the most beautiful man I've ever seen in my life.'"
The two shared coffee at a nearby cafe and immediately clicked.
"You're so fortunate to find the love of your life," she says of the man she's now been married to for more than 16 years; the man who helped raise her kids. "To this day, he still makes me weak in the knees. He's the only man who ever did that."
The power of 9/11
For almost 20 years, Colbert-Busch worked as the director of sales and marketing for Orient Overseas Container Line, a job that took her all over North America and Europe. On Sept. 11 of 2001, that job had her in the heart of New York City.
She takes a deep breath before describing that fateful morning.
"We hear this 'Bang!', " Colbert-Busch says, her eyes wide as she relives the terror, "and the building just shook."
Minutes later a man burst into the room, his face the color of snow. When asked what was wrong, he just pointed outside and said, "Look."
As the people in the room moved to the window, they saw dozens of people jumping out of the tower to their deaths.
"It was one of those moments that are so surreal in your mind," she says.
Immediately, Colbert-Busch and the group evacuated the building, only to step outside and realize they couldn't see a thing because of all the smoke and debris. So they held onto the waistband of the person in front of them, and like a slowly moving train made their way away from the disaster.
Later that night, dirty, soaking wet and completely exhausted, she would catch a bus home to Charleston, trying desperately to outrun the second Sept. 11 nightmare of her life.
Colbert-Busch used to think she was defined by her career. It's easy to understand, after all. Her job was something she loved dearly. So when the opportunity to work for Clemson came knocking in 2008, she initially balked at the idea.
"I just wasn't sure because I thought I had it all," she says. "I was about to say no, but I thought about something my dad used to always tell me: 'Take every legitimate adventure and don't be afraid.' "
So she took the ultimate leap of faith and accepted the job, something she's thankful she did every single day.
It turned out to be the perfect fit. She helps companies see the value of being green, something she believes wholeheartedly is the future of all successful business. In turn, the money these companies invest in the university helps the state of South Carolina.
"It used to be that economy and ecology clashed. That is not the case anymore. Now, the environment and economy go hand in hand. My job is a testament to that," she says. "And, my God, do I love it."
Reach Bryce Donovan at 937-5938 or firstname.lastname@example.org.