George Washington, Winston Churchill or even John F. Kennedy may be remote figures from the past for Lee High School students, not at all as memorable as, say, Jelt Sietsema or Stephanie Leonardos.
Who? Sietsema and Leonardos? They’re not the fathers of their country, nor did they preserve their nations in times of war or foreign conflict. But Sietsema, a longtime state representative and Leonardos, the CEO of one of the region’s largest employers, are among those who built and maintained suburban Wyoming.
Sietsema and Leonardos are among the Lee graduates elected into the Rebel Hall of Fame. Plaques honoring them are a constant reminder to students walking the halls of the historic Lee High School that they, too, can become leaders.
“We see kids stopping and reading them, often pointing something out to their classmates,” Superintendent David Britten said of Hall of Fame honorees and their plaques, prominently installed in the school’s main hallway. “They’ve asked me about the people on them and occasionally you catch them saying, ‘I’m going to be on that wall.’”
“That’s why we put it in the front, most-travelled hallway instead of the gym lobby,” he said. Indeed, students and visitors can’t help but notice the plaques honoring 33 individuals and one athletic team.
Each plaque has a story that recognizes leadership, academic achievement, giving back, and accomplishments in a variety of pursuits beyond high school. There are valedictorians, professional athletes, undefeated champions, wealthy philanthropists, teachers, coaches, school board members, war veterans, community supporters, elected politicians, business leaders, athletic boosters, school superintendents, state champions, lawyers and doctors, a two-time Emmy Award winner, and a local media personality. Each were found worthy by a committee to serve as examples of what hard work, dedication, success and giving back is all about.
The Rebel Hall of Fame was established in 2007 to recognize alumni and other individuals associated with Godfrey-Lee Public Schools for their achievements and contributions to society. While many high school halls focus primarily on athletic achievement, a decision was made early to identify individuals who have been successful in a variety of areas including business and industry; community teaching, volunteerism, philanthropy, or leadership; elected or appointed government; high military leadership or heroism under combat conditions; athletic excellence; and other areas considered unique and providing positive, significant contributions.
The very first individual inducted was Reuben L. Young, who initially taught several years following the opening of Lee High School in 1923, but then went on to serve as principal for an unprecedented thirty-eight years before retiring in 1967. Mr. Young held a special place in the hearts of several generations of Lee Rebels and his induction set the bar for what it takes to be selected to the Hall.
Several other notable Hall members include:
- Former State Representative Jelt Sietsema, Class of 1939;
- The 1940 undefeated and un-scored-upon championship football team that included a number of eventual World War II veterans, some of whom never returned home;
- Deborah Traxinger, Class of 1978 and member of Parade Magazine’s All-American basketball team for that year;
- Art Kraai, coach of four state champion and two runner-up cross country teams and member of the Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame;
- Pat Cook, Class of 1933 and along with her husband, Peter C. Cook, one of the area’s notable philanthropists;
- Frank “Stubby” Overmire, Class of 1937 and Detroit Tigers pitcher including the 1945 World Series Championship year;
- Dr. Bernard Eisenga, Class of 1970 and former medical director for the Spectrum Health Poison Center in Grand Rapids;
- Charles Lark, Class of 1982 and captain in the East Grand Rapids Department of Public Safety;
- Stephanie Leonardos, President & Chief Executive Officer for Amerikam;
- Gary P. Schenk, Class of 1961, distinguished lawyer and founding partner of Schenk, Boncher, & Rypma, P.C., as well as former President of the Grand Rapids Community College Board of Trustees;
- Henry J. Beld, thirty-two year member of the Board of Education including twenty-five years as president; and
- Dr. Robert H. Puite, Class of 1942 and named to the Spectrum Health Distinguished Physicians Society in 1999.
The Hall of Fame committee and school administration purposely chose to house the Hall in the original 1923 hallway of Lee High School because most students travel through that part of the school several times each day, Britten said. Next to the Hall is an area dedicated to honoring the twenty-seven former Lee students who gave their lives in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
“Our goal is that these men and women live on in our school life and influence each generation of students who come through here,” said Britten, a former student and principal at Lee who also rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve.
This winter, three more individuals were enshrined in the Hall. They were:
Peter Arthur Foote, Class of 1967, Teacher, Principal – A leader in his class, he was a member of the student council serving as president and Ottawa-Kent League of Student Councils president his senior year. Foote was active in choir, debate, Spanish Club, Junior Rotary, senior play and selected by his classmates for the homecoming court. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy following graduation, serving two tours in Vietnam and earning a number of citations and seven battle-campaign stars. He graduated from Grand Valley State University and taught a variety of subjects at Lee Middle & High Schools for 34 years. He served as advisor for several student groups, and was promoted to secondary principal during his final three years with the district. Prior to retiring in 2011, he led a successful transformation of the school from a low academic achievement designation to the highest ranked high school in the surrounding area.
Patrick W. Ziegler, Class of 1984 – An active member of his class, he served as class and student council president his senior year; participated in football, basketball and track, student council, musical productions, Close-Up, and on the Aerial student newspaper and Echo yearbook staff. He was selected by his classmates to the homecoming court his junior year and homecoming king as a senior. The Western Michigan University graduate in theater and communications was later honored with an Outstanding Alumni Award from the Theater Department. He trained at the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York City where he had brief stints on popular television shows and worked in theaters. He worked as a producer in Los Angeles, received a regional Emmy Award in 2009 and co-founded an entertainment company producing a web-based program titled “Backstage Drama,” which earned a second Emmy Award with proceeds benefiting local community theater.
Leon W. Hendrix, Class of 2004 – An academically outstanding student who graduated seventh in his class, Hendrix was a member of the National Honor Society, Science Olympiad Team, and was first chair in the high school band woodwinds group as well as being selected to serve as drum major during his senior year. Having identified his interest in journalism and radio-television broadcasting at an early age, Hendrix experienced his first live broadcast as volunteer auctioneer at the local PBS affiliate. The Hope College graduate studied communications and Spanish, and was a founding member of the college’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. He served as news and sports director for the campus radio station; interned at WXMI-TV in Grand Rapids before hiring on at WOOD-TV8 as weekend associate producer, assignment editor, reporter and weekend anchor desk. He was recognized in 2010 by Michigan Association of Broadcasters with an award for Best Investigative Story.