Citizens who step up: Honors for Lee Williams and Brent Schondelmeyer of Independence

By Mike Genet

Shortly before the pandemic took hold of daily life in March, Phil Hanson asked Brent Schondelmeyer and Lee Williams to visit with him at the Truman Heartland Community Foundation offices in Independence.

“They came in and thought I wanted to talk to them about an entirely different subject, and I said, ‘We can talk about that later,’” said Hanson, the foundation’s president and CEO. “We want to honor you at our gala.”

'People always take pride in the place they're from, but Independence just has a unique history,' says Brent Schondelmeyer. He and his wife, Lee Williams, are being later this month at the Heartland Humanitarians of the Year by the Truman Heartland Community Foundation. [Submitted photo]

The Independence husband-and-wife team had been selected by the foundation’s as the Heartland Humanitarians of the Year for their decades of community advocacy through charities, civic engagement at the polls, and work related to their jobs. Schondelmeyer and Williams will be honored at the annual Toast of the Towns Gala on Sept. 26. That event, like countless others, will be a virtual gathering this year. 

Williams said she and her husband were “surprised and shocked” – an assessment Hanson echoed. 

“You don’t think of yourself as a humanitarian,” Schondelmeyer said. “You’re just somebody who lives in the community, tries to help the community and do what you can to support the community.

“People see you in a way that you don’t recognize yourself, and you’re appreciative.”

Schondelmeyer is deputy director of the non-profit Local Investment Commission (LINC), which focuses on revitalization in older and lower-income neighborhoods. He also is vice president of the State Historical Society of Missouri, active with the Jackson County Historical Society and is on board of trustees of the Mid-Continent Public Library – “Really, an extraordinary library system,” he said. Williams recently retired as library director at Graceland University and is past president of the Health Sciences Library Network of Kansas City.

Together, they both have served on the Independence Heritage Commission and have worked on many civic campaigns such as Independence’s Clean Indoor Act in 2006, which limited smoking in public, and several sales tax initiatives designed to help streets, parks, police and animals. Their church, First Christian Church of Independence, is partnering with Drumm Farm Center for Children to develop a youth drop-in center for homeless students.

Hanson said the board was most impressed with the couple’s longstanding commitment and the breadth of their involvement with community causes.

“Their involvement with their church and civic things, they’re involved in many different aspects in promoting the community,” he said. 

The couple met on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend and married in 1989, and they’ve long held mutual interests in historic preservation and civic engagement.  

“I come from a small town (Cambridge City, Indiana), and you have to be more involved to keep your town going,” Williams said. 

In Independence, one can do a lot behind the scenes. 

“In a larger town like this, you can kind of hang back,” she added.

Schondelmeyer, a graduate of Truman High School, said his background in journalism led him to various communities and settings and piqued a sense of curiosity.

“People always take pride in the place they’re from, but Independence just has a unique history,” he said. “Lee and I shared an interest in historical preservation, and we’ve always been willing to work issue campaigns. That’s how the community decides what it wants to be."

Schondelmeyer acknowledged that receiving such an award during a pandemic is an odd feeling.

“It’s a really difficult time, because it’s hard to be community,” he said. “Everybody’s staying home, there’s a lot of anxiety and worry: ‘When do we get back to normal, and what that will look like.’ And the social unrest is striking, and not without cause.” 

Regarding the social unrest, Schondelmeyer and Williams said they’ll use their award as an opportunity to highlight their new initiative through Truman Heartland, the Racial Equity Action Fund. They’ve started it with $10,000 and are hoping to raise at least that much if not twice as much.

“This will support ideas and projects for racial equity, and we put some money into it ourselves,” Schondelmeyer said. “Independence has had a changing demographic for years, and it’s long overdue that we understand who lives in the community. And it’s not just Independence that’s having this conversation.”

Hanson said Truman Heartland will host its virtual Toast of the Towns Gala live from the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, with dozens of watch parties around the metro area, including the seven mayors who will honor their citizens of the year.