The Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation announced in September, 2019, it had received a $10,000 pledge in a “family challenge” from the family of former Shenandoah High School teacher, coach and administrator Bob Sweeney and his wife Kathy Sweeney, now of Atlantic.
That challenge, if met and matched by 99 other families, would mean the foundation over the next 15 years would grow the endowment it is creating by $1 million. That endowment will exist for the long-term support and enhancement of the Shenandoah Community Schools, plus the interest money it yields annually can be used in the shorter-term for scholarships, programs and equipment.
“We wish you only the best with meeting the challenge,” Bob Sweeney wrote to foundation president Corby Fichter. “Shenandoah was and is a special place to our entire family. It was so neat to get such quick email replies from all three of our kids about being part of the ‘investment’ in the foundation. We sent them the idea about midnight, and all had replied by 9 a.m. the next morning.”
The three Sweeneys of the next generation are Kari Sweeney Schwind, 48, a nurse and former U.S. Air Force captain, living in Warrenton, Va., and 45-year-old twins Kevin Sweeney, one of the top umpires in NCAA baseball and also an employee in guest services and security for Hyatt Hotels Corp., now living in Gainesville, Va., and Kristi Sweeney, a professor in sport management at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
Kathy and Bob Sweeney.
It is notable, with the Sweeneys’ generosity toward the Shenandoah education foundation, that none of them – parents or children – are SHS graduates.
“We are so thankful for the Bob and Kathy Sweeney family’s challenge, which is $1,000 per year for the next 10 years,” said foundation president Fichter. “They have very fond memories of our Shenandoah community and schools. They also know that we have many families that have been blessed by Shenandoah and our schools over the years, and so the Sweeneys are challenging 100 families to join them in supporting not only our current students and teachers, but for the very long future of the Shenandoah schools. We’re now asking people if they will join the Sweeneys in this challenge and be one of those 100 families that will make a big difference in our communities.”
The first other family to accept the challenge – talk about leadership here! – Corby and Jean Fichter and their family.
Corby Fichter, besides heading the education foundation, is a regional vice-president of Farm Credit Services of America for southwest Iowa and a farmer himself. Jean Fichter is the current president of the board of education of the Shenandoah schools and helps on the farm. You can read more about their pledge in another story on this website.
Bob Sweeney, whose last work for the Shenandoah schools in 2015 and ’16 was researching and then organizing the education foundation, always emphasized that while donations of all amounts are always welcome, it would take larger donations, grants and bequests to make an endowment secure and significant for the long-term.
In its first three years, the foundation has been able to raise about $100,000 – including two $20,000 donations, one from the Isabel Spears family and the other from the Anne Gee family, after the deaths of those two longtime community leaders.
The prospect that these “family challenge” pledges of $10,000 from 100 families could result in a $1 million infusion into the endowment has particularly excited Fichter and the 10 other members of the foundation board of directors.
“I’m not sure what to say about what $1 million would mean to our education foundation, other than ‘Wow!’ ” said Fichter. “It would truly make a tremendous difference in what we could do to enhance the education possibilities for all our students and teachers, and for a very long time. I would love the chance to dream about what this would and could mean to our school. I absolutely know it would make a difference in the lives of many, many students.”
Here are the details of the “family challenge,” as proposed by the Sweeneys. They have already made their pooled donation of $1,000 for the first year. So here’s the task for the foundation, to keep the Sweeneys writing more $1,000 checks:
--First year, find 24 additional families – actually, just 23, thanks to the Fichters – to pledge $1,000 per year for 10 years. At least a few other families who’ve heard about the challenge have already expressed an interest.
--Second year, find 25 more families, pledging the same.
--Third year, find 25 more families, pledging the same.
--Fourth year, find another 25 families, pledging the same.
So at the end of four years, the foundation would have 100 families that have pledged $1,000 per year for 10 years. By that point, their generous donation pattern would be established, and eventually, the “family challenge” will have produced the $1 million for the endowment.
Kristi Sweeney, the professor at the University of North Florida, who was designated by her parents as family spokesperson for this challenge, said she and her siblings were not surprised when their mom and dad contacted them about getting involved.
“Even though none of the three of us graduated from Shenandoah High, I think we all feel like we really grew up in our seven years there in the 1980s,” Kristi said. “When Dad got the job in Charles City and told us we were moving there, we all felt like we were leaving our hometown. I know I really felt that way. I can remember standing on the softball diamond in Shenandoah, as a seventh grader getting ready for a game, when Dad walked out and told me he’d taken the Charles City job and we were going to move there. My immediate response to him was, ‘Well, I’ll just live here.’ ”
Bob and Kathy Sweeney were high school classmates in Emmetsburg in northwest Iowa, graduating in 1969. They went on to Northwest Missouri State then-College in Maryville, Mo., where Bob played basketball and earned both his bachelor and master’s degrees. His first job, after college, was at the old Union Carbide battery plant in Red Oak. But he missed education and soon left to take a job teaching business and coaching baseball and basketball at Indianola.
After his Shenandoah years, the family made the move to Charles City, where all three Sweeney children graduated; then to nearby Greene, where Bob was high school principal, and then to Atlantic where he was assistant principal and activities director from 1995 until he retired in 2008. In Atlantic, Kathy Sweeney went to work for Rolling Hills Bank, and is still working at that bank as an administrative assistant in the trust department.
“When you think of all those towns where our family has lived, they’re all places where life was really centered around the schools,” Kristi Sweeney said. “With that and having Dad working his whole career as an educator, I think all of us in the family have really valued education. We’ve all talked over the years about how much we’ve benefitted from teachers, schools and communities, and how we really need to give back. That’s what we’re doing now.”
Kristi said the family members have already been donors in smaller amounts to schools in their communities, and they plan to continue doing so.
“But when I look back, what I really remember most in my K-12 education, I think my favorite teachers were ones I had in Shenandoah,” she continued, and she rattled off several of their names.
And there were a whole lot of good times, too.
“With Dad being a business teacher, he taught us all how to type,” she said. “And always on Sundays, our schedule was church in the morning, then on to the school because Dad would supervise ‘Open Gym’ from noon to 4 p.m. We’d be in there shooting baskets, then when we’d get tired, we’d go into the typing room and have typing races. To this day, my students at North Florida are just amazed at how fast I can type.”
You can write the author of this story, Chuck Offenburger, a member of the board of the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation, by email at chuck@Offenburger.com.