2015: Shawnee’s year in review
This past year saw many incredible firsts for the city of Shawnee.
The city’s first female mayor was elected, the city received numerous new accolades and several exciting new businesses opened. The city also lost some of its most influential leaders in 2015, and the community has stopped to remember the people who made Shawnee what it is today.
In education, our local schools were awarded incredible technology grants. The De Soto district went through some leadership changes and Mill Valley High School won the 4A state Championship in football.
Here’s a look back at some of the biggest stories from 2015 that appeared in The Dispatch.
Mayor Michelle Distler elected
It was something that even she couldn’t believe.
After years on the City Council and after a long campaign, Michelle Distler was elected by the people of Shawnee as the first female mayor of the city.
Results from the April 7 general election declared Distler the winner over Dan Pflumm by a vote of 3,081 to 2,622. Distler replaced Mayor Jeff Meyers who served as mayor since 2004 but didn't seek re-election.
Distler has appreciated Shawnee since she was just a girl running around her neighborhood, when the CVS store at Neiman Road and 65th Street used to be a field full of cows. Becoming mayor is something that she said not only fulfills a dream of hers, but creates a future of unlimited potential for her daughter and all young girls.
Evelyn VanKemseke leaves indelible legacy
The VanKemseke family and the Shawnee community as a whole celebrated the incredible life of Evelyn VanKemseke, founder of Shawnee Community Services, when she died at the age of 86.
VanKemseke’s life achievements and contributions to the hungry and needy in Shawnee and the Kansas City area may not be fully measurable. She touched thousands of lives through Shawnee Community Services, which feeds anyone in need, no questions asked.
Hundreds of city officials and members of various communities went to her funeral at Amos Funeral Homes to remember and celebrate her life. Two of VanKemseke’s daughters, Marlisa VanKemseke and Sylvia Terry, are continuing Evelyn’s mission through Shawnee Community Services, which fed more than 600 families over the Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays.
Evelyn’s impact on Shawnee is already commemorated in the mural at Shawnee City Hall in which she is painted next to the former mayors of Shawnee. The building that houses Shawnee Community Services will also be named after her.
Erfurt Park opens in western Shawnee
More than a dozen people from Erfurt, Germany, visited Shawnee this fall to celebrate a new connection between Shawnee and its German sister city.
Erfurt Park was designed with the help of the Shawnee Sister Cities committee and a committee of Shawnee and Erfurt leaders who worked for years to create a park that truly resembles Erfurt. The city is known for its history and as the flower and garden city of Germany. Erfurt Park was built with features inspired by Aga Park in Erfurt, like a winding flower garden that mimics a larger version in the German park and features plants grown from seeds imported from Erfurt. There is also a lookout hill with a spiral path to the top surrounded by wild flowers and prairie grass.
“We have focused on making this park a reflection of the life and values of Erfurt,” said Shawnee Parks and Recreation Director Neil Holman at the opening of the park.
The parks’ completion marked the end of about 15 years of planning and two years since the city broke ground on the $1.5 million 20-acre park on 71st Street just west of Gleason Road.
Time capsules opened and buried again
In 2065, the leaders of Shawnee will open a time capsule buried earlier this year and know a little bit more about what life was like in 2015.
The time capsule was buried in January when the city opened up a time capsule buried 25 years ago in front of City Hall.
The new time capsule itself is a wooden box built by Shawnee Mission Northwest and inside went Kansas City Royals memorabilia from the 2014 World Series and some of today's technology like an iPhone and some connecting cables.
The previous time capsule was a coffin that, despite the city's best efforts at the time, was damaged by water over the 25 years. The contents inside mostly survived, although some of the letters and paper materials inside were damaged.
Former mayor Jim Allen spoke at the ceremony, and said that it was hard to believe that the time capsule was buried 25 years ago, but said the council and the mayor at the time, Bob Best, wanted to be able to open it within their lifetimes. Standing over the contents of the 1990 time capsule, Allen said Shawnee has come a long way, but it has always maintained the personality of a small town with a tight-knit community.
"The more things have changed, the more things have also stayed the same," Allen said.
She’s A Pistol tragedy brings community together
It was a tragedy that shook downtown and entire Shawnee community, but also brought it together.
Jon Bieker was shot and killed while protecting his wife, Becky, and the store they owned together. Four suspects were shot, arrested and charged with felony murder.
The attempted robbery of She’s A Pistol in downtown Shawnee on Jan. 9 rattled the community. But it also strengthened it.
The community rallied under the theme of #ShawneeStrong and held a candlelight vigil in front of the store that hundreds attended.
Becky Bieker also became a symbol of strength in the aftermath of her husband’s death and reopened her store in a new, updated location on Quivira Road. She said she knew she wanted to keep the store in Shawnee because of the community support she felt before and after the shooting.
The four suspects in the case are all awaiting trial.
Voters pass multimillion dollar bond issue
January was a pivotal month for the Shawnee Mission school district, with voters overwhelmingly approving a $223 million bond issue through the district’s first-ever mail ballot election.
Uses of the bond issue funds have throughout the year included the enhancement of security features at all five high schools and the kicking off of the district’s plan to build a new elementary school in each attendance area. Groundbreakings for new Briarwood, Crestview and Trailwood elementary schools took place early in the school year. A groundbreaking for a new Benninghoven Elementary School in the Northwest attendance area will take place in the near future.
De Soto superintendent resigns
In a move that shocked many in the De Soto school district community, the school board approved in February Superintendent Doug Sumner’s resignation. Sumner had served in the district since 1995, starting out as an associate principal at De Soto High School for three years, followed by a six-year stint as principal at Monticello Trails Middle School.
He moved to the Gardner-Edgerton district for a couple of years, serving as an assistant superintendent, before being hired in 2010 as the De Soto school district’s superintendent-elect. He became the district’s full-fledged superintendent the following year.
Though Sumner never publicly announced any specific reasons behind his choice to resign, he was hired that same month to serve as the Shawnee Mission school district’s new assistant superintendent for human resources. Sumner remained with De Soto through the end of the school year, and began his new position officially on July 1.
Ron Wimmer currently serves as the De Soto district’s interim superintendent, a position he will continue until a new leader is found.
Board member recalled
It didn’t take long after Sumner’s resignation for more upheaval to occur in the De Soto school district. At the following board meeting, patrons filled the De Soto High School theater to share their concerns that a certain board member was to blame for not only Sumner’s departure but also the recent resignations of a number of other administrators, including Jessica Dain, the district’s director of teaching and learning.
Though his name was never declared outright at the board meeting, it was clear the member in question was Scott Hancock. At the meeting, patron Anh-Nguyet Nguyen demanded a resignation from the board member, “otherwise, I will start the process necessary for recall.”
Though Hancock denied any wrongdoing, Nguyen and a number of other patrons soon after the meeting made good on her threat, filing a petition with the Johnson County Election Office to begin recall proceedings based on accusations of bullying and harassment by Hancock. Their efforts were successful, as Hancock was officially recalled during an Aug. 18 election.
In October, Danielle Heikes, a project manager with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, was appointed by the school board to fill Hancock’s Position 4 seat.
Land shifts at Ray Marsh
Over the summer, heavy rainfall caused quite a disturbance at Ray Marsh Elementary — or, more specifically, a large gaping hole. Located right next to a playground on the school’s grounds, the waterlogged landshift was discovered in mid-July by district officials.
In a press conference held right next to the hole and just days before the start of school, Superintendent Jim Hinson assured parents in August that the building itself was safe, but that the six kindergarten and first-grade classrooms that are in the part of the building facing the landshift would be moved to other areas of the school because of the noise and distraction that work to fix the problem would likely cause.
That work, Hinson estimated at the time, could ultimately cost nearly $1 million of the district’s capital outlay funds. The project, which took place throughout the fall, involved filling in the hole, fixing a retaining wall that had been damaged by the shift and installing preventative measures underneath the building itself.
“To make sure there’s no issues in the future, they’re going to make sure the building is supported from underneath down to the rock that’s underground,” Hinson said at the press conference.
A big win for St. Joseph Catholic School
Longtime teacher Lisa Fox was on cloud nine after finding out in early December that her efforts to win a $100,000 grant through Farmers Insurance’s nationwide Thank America’s Teachers Dream Big Teacher Challenge had paid off. In a schoolwide assembly Dec. 2, Fox was surprised with the news that the school had won the grant that would go to pay for new iPads for all students at St. Joseph Catholic School.
“That is the best thing that could happen for us right now, so we could have the technology for the kids,” said Fox, who on the morning following the announcement was still visibly overwhelmed by the news. “The whole thing is, we fight for every dime, because we’re a Catholic school. … For our school, it’s amazing.”
Making the deal that much sweeter was that the win was based entirely on votes from community members, demonstrating that there is a lot of support in the area for the smaller, private school located near downtown Shawnee.
“Anytime you ask, people have come through in this community,” said St. Joseph Principal Sue Carter at the time.
The new iPad Airs should be available for students to use throughout the school day by early next year, Carter said.