• Chuck Offenburger

Cheri Kenyon, grateful for all that her parents did for her, and for all their support of her in edu

Cheri Kenyon, a member of the Shenandoah High School Class of 1975, says it’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever loved the community of Shenandoah and the local schools more than her late parents Harold and Carol Kenyon did.

“Neither one of them was originally from Shenandoah, but it really became their home,” said Cheri, who is now 63 and divides time between her homes in Florida and North Carolina. “My dad and mom both to Shenandoah in 1956 – he from the Denison area and she from the Atlantic area – and they met when both were working at the Montgomery Ward store. I became their only child in 1957, then they built a house on Vista Avenue and they lived the rest of their lives in it.

“They were always so pleased with the Shenandoah schools, with the education and with all the opportunities I had in activities and sports. I was fortunate to be on the inaugural teams when Shenandoah High started softball and girls basketball. My folks started going to all the games back then – girls and boys – and they continued going to games until their health wouldn’t let them go anymore.”

Cheri Kenyon said she has followed along from afar as the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation was started five years ago. She had been thinking about doing something for the schools as a way to honor her parents, and was particularly with the foundation’s launch of the “Family Challenge” campaign a year ago. “I thought, ‘That’s perfect! I’m going to do that for my mom and dad.’ They just loved Shenandoah.”

Cheri Kenyon (right) in 2006 with her parents Harold and Carol Kenyon.

Now, the recent Kenyon match brings to 19 the total number of families or individuals who have joined the Family Challenge in its first year.

It was launched in September, 2019, by the family of Bob and Kathy Sweeney, who pledged to donate $10,000 to the education foundation over the next 10 years – if their pledge is matched by 24 families in 2020, then 25 additional families in each of the next three years.

If successful, the Family Challenge will generate $1 million, which would allow the foundation to establish a solid endowment to help support the Shenandoah Community Schools.

Here are the 18 families or individual donors who have so far made matched the Sweeneys’ initial pledge: Corby and Jean Fichter family, John & Gayle Teget family, Julie & Pat O’Hara family, Zac & Amy Zwickel family, brothers Bruce and Kent Foster for the Foster family, Joe Anderson family, Terry Ratliff family, Rick Cogdill family, Tom & Pat Beavers family, Jeremy Pritchet for Tech Services, Star Ann and Ed Kloberdanz family, Judy Bengston family, Ed May, Bill and Jolie Levere family, Dustin and Hayley Christiansen family, Amy and Jeff Miller family, the Ken and Lois DeBaere family, Cheri Kenyon for her parents Harold and Carol Kenyon.

The foundation’s executive director Jamie Burdorf and board member Chuck Offenburger, both of them journalists, are doing stories on each of the first 25 families or individuals joining the Family Challenge in its first year. Those stories, which will be published on this website and shared in social media, will explore what inspired them to become donors, their experiences with the Shenandoah schools, and the impact of education on their careers and lives.

For 31 years, Cheri Kenyon’s career was as a civilian employee working with different agencies of the U.S. Department of Defense in personnel services, employee relations and eventually in retirement planning.

Her jobs took her from Offutt Air Force Base outside Omaha, to the Strategic Air Command headquarters nearby, then Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, then the Canal Zone in Panama, and finally to Miami, Florida. She formally retired in 2010 – at the age of 53.

What did her hard-working friends think when she was able to retire that young?

“Oh, I heard from a lot of them,” Kenyon said. “Stuff like, ‘I hate you!’ And, ‘Are you fricking kidding me?’ My answer to them was, ‘Hey, you guys could’ve done this, too!’ I guess I was smart enough to figure out early-on that if you work for the federal government, well, they do have a good retirement system. Besides, I liked what I was doing, and along the way I was able to avoid doing something to get fired. So, yeah, I was able to retire young, but I knew I was going to keep working at something else. I didn’t want my brain to fizzle.”

Cheri Kenyon in 2019 while traveling along the Danube River in Europe.

She became a self-employed consultant, contracting with a small company based in Virginia, to travel the country conducting seminars for federal employees approaching retirement.

Kenyon and her longtime partner Diane Paull, a retired division chief in the sheriff’s office in Miami, moved in 2017 to The Villages, a retirement community of 125,000 located in central Florida, northwest of Orlando or south of Ocala. In addition, they built a get-away home in Ashville in western North Carolina, where they’ve also developed vacation rental properties, which Diane manages.

“Diane and I met in Miami, and she was a wonderful cop,” Kenyon said. “Now in retirement, we’re very liberal, ‘blue’ people, but we’re ‘law and order’ people, too. So we’re an interesting mix.”

Kenyon has remained an athlete. She played softball into her 40s, and still golfs regularly today.

She has great stories about being among the first Shenandoah High School girls who, in the early 1970s, were allowed to compete interscholastically in sports, after the federal Title IX forced schools to offer equal opportunity in sports and other activities.

Prior to that, nearly all smaller high schools in Iowa offered softball and girls basketball. Larger high schools – and Shenandoah was considered one then – offered girls some “softer” life-long sports like tennis or golf. SHS did have a girls tennis team from about the mid 1960s.

But in the summer of 1972, when Cheri Kenyon was completing her sophomore year, SHS created its first softball team, with SHS alumnus Denny Howard – already a teacher and coach – as the head coach while he was taking graduate courses at Northwest Missouri State University. Her teammates included Peggy Cabeen, Paula Maher, Jacque Maher, Alice Reed, Jane Joyce, Mary Ann Goodrich and others.

“One neat thing about softball,” Kenyon recalls, “the Elks Lodge in Shenandoah had started up a softball program for younger girls, starting when I was in about fifth grade. So there were a bunch of us that played together on the ‘Elkettes’ for three or four years before the high school team was started. That helped us get ready.”

It took some nudging to persuade the board of education to expand the girls programs in the Shenandoah schools.

And Cheri Kenyon did part of the nudging – in an anonymous way.

“Back in that era, the Farragut High School girls had some great athletes and they had really strong teams in softball and especially basketball,” Kenyon said. “I was a real fan of the Farragut girls, but at the same time, I was wondering why we couldn’t have teams at Shenandoah High. I never went and talked to the school officials – I was way too shy to do that back then.

“But in about 1972, I did write a letter-to-the-editor of The Evening Sentinel about it. It was a long letter, and heartfelt. I think the headline was ‘Why don’t we have girls basketball?’ It was a long letter, and the Sentinel published the whole thing. I didn’t put my name on it, and I didn’t tell anybody I wrote it. I don’t think I even told my parents.

“I don’t know whether that letter helped influence the decision, but about a year later, the school board announced they were starting girls basketball! All these years later, I’m no longer shy. And I’ve always been happy that I wrote that letter.”

The girls on that first girls basketball team started practicing late in 1973 under the first head coach Dennis Gates. Kenyon was a junior then. It was early in 1974 when they played their first interscholastic game – and they were playing the old six-on-six girls game then.

“We were terrible!” Kenyon remembers. “But at the same time, we were playing basketball in a gymnasium, and people were coming to watch! It was so exciting and fun. We were all just thrilled to be getting to play.”

Her teammates included Barb Earhart, Georgia Grasmick, Jane Gowing, Vicky Tyner, Paula Maher, Jane Joyce, Mary Ann Goodrich, Glenda Lingren and others.

The SHS girls went 0-8 that first season, Kenyon recalls.

In her senior year, ’74-’75, the team went 3-16.

“I think our first win was against either Carson-Macedonia or possibly Red Oak,” Kenyon said, going from her memory because she didn’t have her scrapbooks with her in North Carolina. “I think it was an away game, and I can’t imagine what that bus ride must have been like on the way home. It was like, ‘OMG! We won!’ We’d been getting better all the time, but we’d all been so used to losing that we hardly knew how to act when we won that first one.”

Kenyon, one of the taller players then at 5 ft. 10 in., recalls averaging about 20 points per game in her senior year – and one game scored 36.

She was good enough that she got a small scholarship to continue playing basketball and tennis at Graceland College (now University) in Lamoni, Iowa. “I think my scholarship was like $200 per sport,” she said. “And I also played field hockey, which was a totally new sport to all of us.”

Graceland played five-on-five in women’s basketball, and had an ambitious program for its women’s teams. They played small colleges across Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, and occasionally stepped up to play such larger schools as the University of Iowa and Drake University. “Drake was already pretty good,” Kenyon said, “but remember, most of the large universities were just getting their women’s programs started then.”

She majored in recreation and outdoor education, thinking that she would become a rec director in a city. A career counselor at Graceland gave her a great suggestion, though, and that was recommending she take the “PACE” test – the Professional Administrative Career Examination.

That’s what eventually led her to interviewing for the personnel job at Offutt Air Force Base, where her professional career got started in late in 1979, a few months after graduating.

In those few months, by the way, she earned some good money by living at home in Shenandoah with her parents and working on a crew burying cable for the Farragut Telephone Company. “I learned to run a Ditch Witch!” she said with a laugh. And when the weather changed and stopped the cable burying, she worked briefly as an aide to Shenandoah schools kindergarten teacher Dorothy Duerfeldt.

Cheri always remained very close with her parents, making so many trips back home to Shenandoah over the years, “I had a lot of my old friends thinking that I must’ve moved back myself.” Harold and Carol Kenyon traveled twice to visit Cheri when she was working in Panama and also when she lived in Virginia.

Harold’s career in Shenandoah moved on from Montgomery Ward to include Central Surveys and an independent insurance agency. He died in 2008 at the age of 90. Carol also worked at the medical clinic and as Shenandoah Middle School secretary. After retiring from the school, she volunteered for the Red Cross for nearly 20 years. Carol died early in 2020 at 93.

Cheri says that all her life she’s benefitted from the support of her parents, her education at SHS and Graceland College, and her experience in athletics at both the high school and college levels.

She feels like excellent teachers and professors gave her a well-rounded, wide-ranging education, preparing her for her long, satisfying career that continues today with her retirement seminars.

“And from sports, one of the most important things you get is confidence, and that really helps in your career field,” she said. “You also learn the importance of teamwork, meeting new people, building common interests, working with people who have different abilities than you do, learning how to do your best, and how to lose graciously. Those also translate well in your career.”

For all that, she said, “I’m grateful to be a small part of ensuring the excellence of the Shenandoah school system.”

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© 2017 Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation.  

P.O. Box 351, Shenandoah IA 51601

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