Two additional families – both of them with kids still in the Shenandoah Schools and both with college bills likely in their future – have stepped up in recent days to match the $10,000 “family challenge” that the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation was presented with in September.
They are the Pat & Julie O’Hara family and the Zac & Amy Zwickel family.
The “family challenge” was started by the family of former Shenandoah High School teacher, coach and administrator Bob Sweeney and his wife Kathy Sweeney, who now live in Atlantic. They committed $10,000 over the next 10 years – at least $1,000 per year.
That pledge is conditioned on the foundation, over the next four years, finding 99 other families to match the Sweeneys’ donation. In time, 100 families donating $10,000 each will mean a $1 million boost to the endowment that the foundation is building for long-term support of the Shenandoah Community School District and its students, faculty and staff.
Pat and Julie O'Hara, in 2018, while on a Rotary Club visit in Wayne, Neb. (Photo by the Wayne Rotary Club.
The O’Haras and Zwickels became the third and fourth families to join-in on the challenge. The second family to commit were Corby Fichter, president of the foundation; his wife Jean Fichter, who is president of the Shenandoah school board, and their grown children.
Corby Fichter was thrilled that the O’Haras and Zwickels have acted so quickly.
“Julie and Pat O’Hara have generational ties on both sides of their families to Shenandoah and are very excited about joining our foundation’s family challenge,” Fichter said. “Julie has been a member of the foundation’s board of directors since its beginning, and we even pressed their young son Conor into recording one of our promotional ads. He was absolutely outstanding. We truly appreciate the O’Haras dedication and support of our foundation’s vision to enhance the educational opportunities of our youth in Shenandoah.”
Interestingly, Julie O’Hara was talking about the couple’s pledge in an interview on KMA radio last Wednesday morning, Oct. 10. Among people tuned in to that interview were Amy and Zac Zwickel, although neither spouse knew the other was also listening.
Amy Zwickel said “right after I listened to Julie talk about why they decided to do this, I called Zac at work and said, ‘Hey, I just listened to Julie telling how she and Pat have decided to invest in this family challenge that the school foundation has.’ Zac said, ‘Well, I was listening to that, too.’ I told him that’s something that I’m interested in doing, and Zac said he was, too. We talked it over a little more that night.
“We’re both very passionate about this community,” Amy continued, “and we hope by getting involved in this now, and being willing to talk about it, we hope it will make some other people think about it and step up, too.”
Fichter, the foundation board president, said “there is absolutely no doubt of Zac’s and Amy’s commitment and desire to be a part of our Shenandoah community and school. Their involvement over the years in Shenandoah include coaching, owning their own business, and working for employers in our area that continually make a difference for so many people. Zac and Amy joined our family challenge as they know the positive financial impact of providing long-term support to our school. On behalf of the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation, I want to give a big shout out to Zac and Amy for their involvement in supporting our school and community.”
Julie O’Hara told the KMA audience that she and husband Pat decided to donate after an “a-ha” moment in their conversation.
“For Pat and me, when I threw this idea to him that we step up and be the next family to do it, the $10,000 sounded huge,” she said. “As we started thinking hif we could make it work, we at first thought that a thousand dollars a year sounds huge, too. But when you break it on down, it’s really not even a hundred dollars a month to set aside to be able to make that pledge of $1,000 a year. So, when we did that, it really was an ‘a-ha’ moment -- especially for him -- to say, ‘Yeah, we can make that work.’ ”
Pat O’Hara, a 1986 graduate of SHS, farms with his dad Jim O’Hara, in Page and Fremont Counties. After high school, Pat attended Doane University in Crete, Neb., for three years before starting his farming career. O’Haras have been graduating from SHS since 1924, when Pat’s grandfather Joe O’Hara earned his diploma.
Julie Martin O’Hara started out in life in the Shenandoah area. Her dad Mike Martin, originally from the Imogene area, graduated SHS in 1962, and several of his siblings graduated in Shenandoah, too. After Julie’s eighth grade year, the family moved to Fort Collins, Colo., where she graduated from Rocky Mountain High School there. She began working as an account manager in Colorado and Wyoming for the communications company McLeodUSA.
On a visit back to her grandparents and other family in Imogene and Shenandoah, she was introduced to Pat O’Hara. They married in the summer of 2000, and have daughter Rebecca, a 2012 SHS graduate, who is a dental assistant in Omaha; daughter Hailey, who will graduate from SHS next spring, and son Conor, now a 5th grader.
Julie O’Hara now sells real estate for Jim Hughes Real Estate, actually working from an office in Shenandoah with Amy Zwickel. Julie also has volunteered extensively in the Shenandoah schools, especially reading to elementary students. And she is very involved in Rotary and served as district governor for clubs in southeastern Nebraska, Omaha-Council Bluffs, and southwest Iowa.
The Zwickels -- Zac and Amy on the left, Zayne behind and Seth to the right, while on a recent family vacation in Colorado.
Amy Zwickel said she and her husband Zac “get asked all the time, ‘Do you guys ever sleep? Do you ever get any rest?’ ”
Well, of course they do, but they are busy. They have sons Zayne, a junior at SHS, and Seth, an eighth grader.
Zac Zwickel, who graduated from Shenandoah High in 1994, is director of information technology at Shenandoah Medical Center, serving just more than three years there. Earlier he spent 16 years working his way up at the Pella Corporation plant in Shenandoah, starting at nights on the production floor and eventually working in information systems there.
Amy Buick Zwickel, a ’95 SHS graduate, went immediately to work at the former Security Trust and Savings Bank in Shenandoah, and spent 22 years there, seeing it become part of the Bank Iowa chain. She moved up from being a teller to internal auditing, and eventually became manager at the bank’s drive-in location. Along the way she became interested in real estate, completed a 100-hour course and in 2018 joined Jim Hughes Real Estate. “I have to thank Julie O’Hara for getting me into real estate,” Amy said. “She has been a real inspiration for me in this business.”
Years ago, Amy had gotten to know hotel-motel owners Paul and Percilla Lattin, who owned and operated few properties across the area. They became the first owners of the Shenandoah Inn and Suites in downtown Shenandoah. In 2014, the Zwickels were completing work on their new house, which they planned and built together. The Lattins stopped by to see it, and during their tour, Percilla Latin told them, “Hey, if you guys can build a house together, you could run a hotel together, too!” The Zwickels told the Lattins “well, if you two ever decide to sell, we might take a look at it,” as Zac Zwickel recalled.
Four years later, the Lattins called, and the Zwickels bought Shenandoah Inn and Suites, taking over in the summer of 2018. Those who know their Shenandoah history may recall that Zac Zwickel’s family owned and operated the old Waubonsie Hotel decades ago.
Even with everything else they do, the Zwickels had tremendous success the last seven years in starting up and building the SHS interscholastic bowling program. They’d both been bowlers in youth leagues as they grew up, then became volunteer coaches later. When SHS decided to start bowling as a competitive sport in the 2012-2013 school year, Bob Sweeney – then the activities director – recruited them to head the new program.
With Amy as head coach and Zac as her assistant, the Zwickels quickly made the Mustangs and Fillies teams among the best in southwest Iowa, with the Mustangs qualifying for the state tournament three times and the Fillies twice.
They decided to make the 2019 season their last, with their business careers becoming more demanding, and wanting to reserve more time with their sons, too.
As they considered their “investment,” as they referred to it, in the education foundation’s “family challenge,” Zac and Amy remembered that at least three generations of both their families have been students in Shenandoah and also have had careers in the community.
Zac Zwickel said that after growing up in Shenandoah, going to school, working in the community, and now raising their sons there, “Amy and I are well aware that a lot of the best things we have in the community are the result of earlier people making long-term investments here.
“And now we have an extra pulse on the community, with the hotel, with Amy in real estate and me at the medical center,” he continued. “If we invest in stuff for instant gratification, it’s not going to help in the long-term. We’re at a point here where we see a slow leak in population, but we also see a good number of great young people who have some great ideas they’d like to try. But we’ve got to be competitive as a community to get them here and keep them here. Shenandoah has to be as good, or better than, other towns that are going after these young people. That takes long-term investment, and for Amy and me, it came down to the old, ‘Well, somebody’s got to do it!’ We’re fortunate to be in a position where we can.”
Amy Zwickel said the couple “realized that our own children may or may not benefit directly from us investing in the school foundation. But when they grow up, maybe go to college and then are thinking about what they want to do, they might want to comeback to go into business here. Over the long-term, it’s really been a good town for us. We want it to be a good one for people in the future, too.”
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.