Life Remembered: Renee Schoonover involved in lives at Lincoln's Challenge

Renee Schoonover had a heart for getting involved in people's lives, especially young people, but didn't like being the center of attention.

When a reporter asked for photos of Mrs. Schoonover at her workplace, there were few to choose from.

That's the way she was, according to her boss, Peter Thomas, director of Lincoln's Challenge.

Mrs. Schoonover loved getting in the middle of cadets' lives to help them but not in the middle of any photo shoot.

Mrs. Schoonover, who lived in Fisher, died March 9 of cancer. She was 57.

The executive secretary to the director at Lincoln's Challenge in Rantoul, she was vital to the Lincoln's Challenge Academy mission — helping to turn around the lives of young people.

Academy graduate Stephen Schuch of Woodstock can testify to that. He said he was close to Mrs. Schoonover.

"I owe most of my life to that place," Schuch said of the academy. "This lady could ... have a million and a half things going on, and she would ... take as many minutes as you needed, and she would listen to what was going on with you.

"You could never tell (she was going through health difficulties)."

Mrs. Schoonover continued to work at the academy despite health problems, often using a wheelchair at the office. Thomas said she frequently took work home because she was too tired to work in the office.

Lincoln's Challenge, which began in 1993 on the former Chanute Air Force Base, provides at-risk high school dropouts with a 22-week military-style program of classroom work and physical and volunteer activities.

Schuch said Mrs. Schoonover made him and other cadets feel important.

"Yesterday was really a hard day for me," Schuch said of hearing the news that Mrs. Schoonover had died.

A 20-year Air Force veteran, she had worked at Lincoln's Challenge, which is affiliated with the National Guard, for 17 years.

Thomas hired her as an administrative assistant because he knew she would do a good job, and she exceeded all expectations, he said.

She also worked as a case manager, who would track or be involved in the lives of a certain number of cadets.

She was named executive secretary to the director in April 1998.

"It was her attention to detail, her promptness, attention to duty, fairness to cadets and the general public and the ability to communicate" that Thomas said led him to promote her to that job.

Thomas said Mrs. Schoonover was "friendly, approachable, loving, kind, very expressive in dealing with the young men and young ladies of the academy. She had a desire to see each cadet do well, and she wanted them to graduate and move onto the next phase of their life with energy and a can-do attitude" — an attitude of "don't stop. let me get more."

Gen. William Cobetto of the Illinois National Guard, said he had known Mrs. Schoonover for eight years.

"She was one who could be counted on, relied upon," Cobetto said. "She always got things done. Her heart was into making the Lincoln's Challenge program and making the world a better place, doing what is right for the youth of America."

Cobetto said Mrs. Schoonover held high standards and didn't sit back when there was work to be done.

"She didn't hesitate to uphold a standard and to tell the kids when they were out of line," Cobetto said. "She was executive secretary, but boy, those are big shoes. She was a go-to person for a lot of things over there in Rantoul."

Cobetto said he spoke with her on almost a daily basis.

"She was one of those take-charge kind of people who just got the job done. ... Even on the national level she was very well-respected. She would help with the national gala, national events. She made sure it was done right."

Thomas said Mrs. Schoonover had a competitive side to her as well.

She was in charge of preparing the academy's team for GED Jeopardy, a scholastic competition, and she didn't come up short. Lincoln's Challenge won the competition many years.

"She competed with like 10 other states," Thomas said. "She came home with first place all the time."

Thomas said preparation for the competition "was in-depth studying, practicing, drilling the cadets."

"I've seen her sacrifice lunch to get two or three cadets down who weren't doing as well as she thought they should. She would drill them with questions. I think she personally bought a book out of her pocket that had like 900 questions in it," Thomas said.

Word that Mrs. Schoonover had died was a shock for him, even though he knew she was in ill health.

"I was trying to prepare myself both mentally and physically for it because I knew she was going through some rough times. But she never gave up. She always had hope," Thomas said.

Mrs. Schoonover continued to work until a week before her death of complications from lung cancer, which spread to other parts of her body. She was not a smoker.

Thomas said that while she was stationed in the Philippines with the Air Force, a volcano erupted. There was some conjecture that might have contributed to the lung cancer.

Thomas said Mrs. Schoonover had a good military record.

She was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal with four oak leaf clusters, the Air Force Achievement Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with two oak leaf clusters, Air Force Good Conduct Medal with four oak leaf clusters, National Defense Service Medal, Air Force Overseas Ribbon (long tour), Air Force Longevity Service Award ribbon with three oak leaf clusters, Non-Commissioned Officer Professional Military Education ribbon and the Air Force training ribbon.

Thomas said Mrs. Schoonover will be hard to replace.

As an example of the esteem with which she was held, Thomas noted that attending her visitation were a two-star general, a brigadier general and a colonel, and he had received phone calls expressing condolence from the National Guard Bureau, the National Guard Youth Foundation, Department of Military Affairs and from 10 National Guard academies, most of which sent flowers.

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