I think too many of us misunderstand or take for granted men and women who serve as school board members.
We sometimes dismiss them as a bunch of suits pontificating from ivory towers, concurring with the superintendent’s every whim. Or, conversely, as meddling parents motivated to seek authority to right the wrongs suffered by their own children.
Lee Ann Platschorre will change your minds.
She isn’t merely a member of the Board of Education for Godwin Heights Public Schools, “she is Godwin Heights,” says Ruth Vander Weide, an educator of nearly 30 years who teaches English at the high school.
“She bleeds blue and gold, and she has a passion for our students and for our image, for who we really are as a community. And that’s just one of her strengths, understanding our community and its culture.”
And so I find myself exploring just that, as I sit down with Lee Ann and we peel away the onion-like layers that reveal her true essence. And ironically, she begins to tear up, both eyes welling at the same time.
Her words come slowly, deliberately: “I would be remiss,” she says, if I didn’t tell you that one of the reasons I have been so passionate about this community and this district is that my mom died when I was very young.”
In the following moments, we are both transported more than a half-century into the past, when Lee Ann was a 9th grader at Godwin High, just 13 years old and trying to focus on the bittersweet elements as her mother lies gravely ill at Kent Community Hospital.
It’s at this point that you may be wondering: What does that have to do with Lee Ann Platschorre serving as a school board member?
Nearly everything, when you consider that her mother fostered in her a capacity for enthusiasm, empathy, straight talk, and love. She imbedded it all in Lee Ann’s 13-year-old heart, and today, at the age of 68, Lee Ann carries it right out there on her sleeves for all of Godwin to see and know.
Each new school year, when the staff assembles for another season of living and learning on behalf of some 2,130 students, it’s Lee Ann they invite to speak to them, knowing that her remarks will be punctuated with the tears of a woman who has donated and volunteered most her adult life to this school district, while asking nothing in return.
It’s then, before the employees, that she shares the story of losing her mom on a Saturday night before the last day of a Christmas vacation that wasn’t a vacation at all, but a slow-moving train toward the graveyard for the person she loved most in the whole world.
Among the things her mother taught her was that you don’t have to toss a very big pebble into the pond to create ever-widening ripples. Make your mark on your family, your neighborhood, your immediate community, and it can be enough.
And that’s just what Lee Ann Platschorre has done for Godwin – immersing herself in a changing tapestry of humanity that both struggles and soars, comprised mostly of blue-collar families that may not have big boats and second homes, but know first-hand the meaning behind “it takes a village.”
“This school staff and community was very compassionate and helpful to my family at that time,” she remembers.
“This community has not lost that. And I want to make sure they never do. When we see a family in need, we step up, whether it’s an illness or a house fire.” The impetus to help, she maintains, comes from parents and students and administrators and staff, and teachers especially, whom she describes as “incredible.”
Godwin has experienced prominent demographic shifts in the last three decades. Lee Ann embraces the changes, sees them as opportunities, chances to plant seeds of acceptance and growth.
No matter the race or religion of nationality, “We watch out for each other,” says Lee Ann.
The phrase “each other” has special meaning for Lee Ann, since she’s known from a relatively early age what it is to have and to hold another closely. “Maybe you shouldn’t write this,” she says (and later relents), but I was married at 18, while I was still a senior in high school at Godwin.”
She giggles: “We just celebrated our 50th, and I get sympathy cards from people who know” and enjoy ribbing her and husband Dan about being the youngest couple around to be experiencing a Golden anniversary.
“I had to go before the principal and the superintendent to get to walk at graduation,” she recalls, “and I had to profess that I was not pregnant.”
She would be later, though, three times, giving birth to a girl and two boys. She eschewed college to raise the family while Dan, fresh out of the U.S. Navy, signed on to drive trucks, which put him on the road a week or more at a time.
Lee Ann injected herself into the school system at every opportunity, serving as room-mother and taking all three kids on field trips of all kinds. She worked 10 years as a paraprofessional and after the youngest of their trio had graduated, was elected to the board, in 1991.
By then, she knew the system from the inside out, having served on countless committees and becoming a fixture at concerts, band performances, plays, sports events and more.
She’s been a board member now for nearly 25 consecutive years, all the while juggling a career first in real estate, and more recently with a security company.
Serving on a school board can be a thankless job, performed largely out of the limelight, and without financial compensation. Same goes for her role as a friend of the Wyoming Library, and as a member of the “Golden G” club, reserved for those who graduated 50 or more years ago from Godwin High.
The group’s annual project is to raise funds for scholarships for exiting seniors, as well as those already entrenched in college. While money has been funneled in the past to students bound for traditional colleges, Lee Ann is pushing to consider scholarships to institutes, trade schools and community colleges, too.
She’s motivated by a husband who’s savvy in all manner of home construction and auto mechanics – and by a community that dignifies working with one’s hands.
Godwin Superintendent Bill Fetterhoff appreciates the intuition and institutional knowledge Lee Ann brings to the district.
“She loves the district, she loves the people of this community, and the individuals and businesses who reside here,” he says. “And as someone who has a real passion for the history of the district, she’s been the keeper of all archives as well. When she speaks to teachers, they get a real feel for where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
Cindy Buist, who serves Fetterhoff as executive administrative assistant, also has had close contact with Lee Ann, and has been amazed at her level and length of commitment: “She’s got a heart and soul that beats for this district,” she says.
Lee Ann refuses to see herself or what she does as special. At every juncture, she re-directs the attention onto staff. Leaning forward, she wants to make sure her visitor hears about a program in place where parents and teachers meet after school to grow together.
It’s given birth to all sorts of positive relationships, including one where a teacher, on her own time, drove several Godwin parents to Detroit and helped them through the arduous process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
“That,” says Lee Ann, “is who we are.”