YMCA director has provided C-U years of inspiring leadership
URBANA – Drive a few miles south of Urbana on a windy day and you may spot a 6-foot-8 man standing on a hill above acres of evergreen trees, flying a kite.
That's Steve Shoemaker.
If he doesn't hoist one up by himself, he'll tie a kite to a fence post and watch the wind catch its tails and play with it.
"It seems frivolous, but I like it," he said.
Come next summer Shoemaker will have a lot more time for flying kites on the hill by his house, watching the sun rise and traveling the world.
Born and raised in Urbana, Shoemaker has spent his entire adult life on college campuses, as a minister, a mentor to students, a social justice advocate, a religion teacher, and more.
Now approaching 65 years old, he will retire from the University YMCA in August.
In the nearly three decades he's been in Champaign-Urbana since returning to the area after college, Shoemaker has organized a homeless shelter for men, a shelter for women, a food bank, helped create scholarships for area minority students and hosted a public radio show about faith. And on weekends this winter you'll find him helping out at his brother's Christmas tree farm south of Urbana.
After 18 years at McKinley Church and Foundation as the Presbyterian minister, Shoemaker joined the University YMCA as its executive director in 1999.
The Y's next director will have big shoes to fill, and not just because of Shoemaker's height, said Becca Guyette, the Y's development director.
"He's quite inspiring. He's been a major reason why I committed to working at the Y for so long and why I choose to do fundraising here as opposed to someplace else. He's big on developing individuals personally and professionally. I don't think he sees himself as a boss but a colleague," Guyette said.
Shoemaker grew up in Urbana and played basketball at Urbana High School. Instead of pursuing a career on the courts, he headed to Wheaton College.
"I promised her I would not be a minister," he said of an early conversation he had with his wife, Nadja. "She was afraid I'd be too narrow."
Shoemaker came from a fundamentalist family, and at Wheaton College, dancing, card-playing, movies and alcohol were frowned upon.
But the seminary he attended in Chicago was a progressive one, and Shoemaker became impressed by what some churches were doing then, such as working for world peace and supporting the civil rights movement.
Shoemaker eventually earned a doctorate in religion at Duke University and his first job out of school was as Presbyterian campus minister at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
"I found it challenging and exciting," he said about working with college students. "You've got bright people asking questions, and they're not satisfied with simple answers. It's just exciting to be around the best of the best," he said. "I will miss that."
The primary purpose for the University YMCA is to provide leadership development opportunities for college students and Shoemaker takes that very seriously, Guyette said.
"He really steps out of his box in a way someone in his position might not ordinarily do. He connects with the students," she said.
The Y is home to several student organizations such as Amnesty International, Engineers Without Borders and Students for Environmental Concerns.
"It's been exciting to see those continue and grow throughout the last decade," Shoemaker said.
UI senior Becky Robinson, who serves on the Y's Board of Governors and is co-director of Alternative Spring Break, has been involved with University Y activities since she was a freshman.
"I'm always amazed at his versatility," she said. Shoemaker can talk to people about the building, talk to professionals about donating to the Y, "and at the same time, he'll approach students and say, 'What's going on with ASB (Alternative Spring Break) or SEC (Students for Environmental Concerns)?'. Every one of us is on the same level. It never feels like it's the executive director talking to a student. Part of it is the nature of the Y and part of it is Steve's nature."
These days, Shoemaker has been busy working on the Y's capital campaign.
The University YMCA has been on the campus for 134 years. When the University of Illinois had one building, the Y had an office in that building, Shoemaker said. The building in which the Y is now housed, on South Wright Street, dates back to 1937.
It's a wonderful location, he said. It's near the Quad, the Library and other historic buildings where students congregate.
But the building is showing its age. At the end of November, for example, a pipe failed, and the building's heating system had to be shut off while it was being fixed.
The goal of the $2 million campaign is to, as Shoemaker said, "fix the guts of the building," such as its aging electrical system, the crumbling slate roof and floor tiles. The Y also plans to add an elevator to make sure the upper floors are wheelchair accessible. So far the Y has raised $1.2 million – "and I'm hoping to add to that before I retire," Shoemaker said.
A college town is where he and his wife, a microbiologist, have chosen to retire. This college town, he said.
In the coming years he plans to continue to surround himself with books – he just finished "The Year of Living Biblically" and next up is Vernon Burton's "The Age of Lincoln" – and he plans to garden and watch movies. Also on his to-do list is to travel more – his daughter lives in Chicago, and his son is in Philadelphia. This summer, he and his wife traveled to Turkey, Israel and Palestine, places he'd never been before. He'd like to return to South America and tour Asia, a continent he has not visited.
And he won't become a stranger on campus. After he officially retires in August and retreats to his home in the country, Shoemaker said he will still sneak in a few good MillerComm lectures at the university, and he and his wife will attend performances at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.