From helping kids to helping business leaders

August 16, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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After 39 years in public education — the last 24 as principal at New Groningen Elementary School in Zeeland — Jim Schoettle decided it was a good time for a career change.

He didn’t have far to go to find that new career, but it certainly sounds like a major change. Since July 12, he has been the new president of the Zeeland Chamber of Commerce.

“It was a chance to change and still be loyal to my community and the people I love,” said Schoettle.

Schoettle’s father was a United Methodist pastor, so the family lived in many different West Michigan communities while Shoettle was growing up. He got to meet a lot of people as the family moved from one church assignment to another, and he noticed that his father was “talented at working with people.”

He decided early in life he wanted to be a teacher, he said, because “I loved school as a child and I had some great teachers.” At Lake City High School, he was a member of the future teachers club. Then it was on to Central Michigan University, where he met Janet, his wife-to-be — again. He had met her previously at a church camp.

“I started out to be a high school math teacher because I wanted to work with computers, but I found as I looked at education and looked at myself that I liked working with younger children. So I thought I was going to have to give up technology. But as my career moved forward, there was the technology revolution,” he said.

He soon discovered he could be involved with microcomputers in elementary education. The two areas in education that he always had the most interest in were computer technology and teaching reading. Learning to read is critical for a child, he noted, because “you can’t do math unless you can read.”

After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in education at Central in 1971, with a science major, he began his professional career, working for three years as a first- and sixth-grade teacher at Ganiard Elementary School in the Mount Pleasant Public Schools.

During that time, he also earned a Master of Arts in elementary education at Central with a concentration in reading.

After that, Schoettle taught third grade for one year in Englewood Public Schools near Denver, while Janet attended the University of Denver.

The couple then moved to Rockford, Ill., for eight years, where Schoettle worked as a middle school reading teacher, then director of the Harlem Public Schools gifted programs, and then coordinator of the district’s microcomputer planning and instruction.

The Schoettles were back in Michigan by 1983, with Jim working as an elementary and middle school principal, transportation director and special education director at Onekama Public Schools. He left there in 1986 to move to Zeeland Public Schools, where he served 24 years straight — until the end of the 2009-2010 school year — as principal at New Groningen Elementary.

New Groningen “is a big part of my life,” he said. “Very few of my peers get to stay in one place.”

Schoettle said he got to know the families of the children who attended New Groningen very well over 24 years, and today “they are very, very important to me,” along with the staff, many of whom he had hired over the years.

When the Michigan government offered incentives to retire this year, “I felt it was the right time to retire,” he said.

Jim Schoettle

Business/Organization: Zeeland Chamber of Commerce
Position: President
Age: 61
Birthplace: Chicago
Residence: Zeeland
Family/Personal: Wife, Janet; three grown children and seven grandchildren.
Community/Business Involvement: Board member, Salvation Army; vice president of the Zeeland Classis of the Reformed Church of America; board member, Zeeland Pumpkinfest.
Biggest career break: “Getting this job” as president of the Zeeland Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s much easier to sell yourself at 61 than 64 or 65,” he said. “I retired having no idea where I would go, but I was looking at nonprofits.

“I’m a doer. I like work and I like people. So I was looking for a place where I could serve, and I knew the people here in Zeeland and many people” who had been at the Zeeland Chamber over the years. He saw the opening for a new president and applied, not knowing what to expect.

“They have been so gracious and welcoming to me,” he said.

Schoettle was hired to replace Ann Query, who retired this year after serving as president of the Zeeland Chamber for 22 years. But she’s not gone yet: She’s serving as an advisor to Schoettle while he takes the reins.

Since its founding in 1937, the Zeeland Chamber has only had six leaders, counting Schoettle. It is a small organization, with only the president, an office administrator and a part-time administrative assistant. The annual budget is just under $200,000. The Chamber has almost 400 members.

“We work with a lot of volunteers,” said Schoettle, adding that volunteerism is one of the things that distinguishes Zeeland from many other communities. The other distinguishing characteristic might be family-oriented community events, which are frequent, generally free — and entail a lot of volunteers.

Schoettle first became familiar with the ready inclination of Zeeland residents to volunteer their time for a good cause when he was principal at New Groningen, and now he’s found that volunteerism plays as big a role at the Chamber. 

The annual fall Pumpkinfest, for example, has become one of Zeeland’s best-known events over the past 27 years. As its website (www.pumpkinfest-zeeland.org) notes, it is “a family festival featuring very cost-effective and FREE activities and events to be enjoyed by all ages.”

The three-day event, which begins Thursday, Sept. 30, this year, is coordinated with the help of the Chamber, but a nonprofit volunteer organization does all the work. Individuals and businesses in the community donate what little funding is required to put on the event each year.

People around town build displays for Pumpkinfest, and this year there will be a photography contest organized by deVries Photography.

Pumpkinfest happens, Schoettle said, “because volunteers do it.”

“The volunteers (in Zeeland) are fabulous,” he added. “People care about the community.”

Dog lovers, take note: The next community event in Zeeland is Dog-a-Rama on Aug. 21.

The city of Zeeland has a population of just less than 6,000, but as the Chamber website notes, the daytime population is actually double that because of all the people who work in Zeeland. The two largest companies are manufacturers Gentex Corp., which makes automotive and fire-protection safety products, and office furniture maker Herman Miller Inc.

One message Schoettle said he wants to get out to everyone in Zeeland is: “We want more collaboration. We can’t do everything (at the Chamber) because we’re so small, but we want everyone in the area to collaborate, to use their joint skills and talents.”

The Chamber’s mission, he said, is to involve the community leaders in promoting and fostering economic growth. The big challenge facing the community is “to continue to have growth with the value.”

“We want to make it a place that’s better and easier to do business,” he said.

“Zeeland is quite conservative,” said Schoettle, but not even fiscal conservatism protected the city from the Great Recession. Gentex, for example, suffered the first layoffs in its 34-year history in December 2008, when about 15 percent of the almost 2,600-person work force was let go.

Gentex’s production is back up and it is hiring again now, as are other employers in the Zeeland and Holland area.

“We are doing more with less,” said Schoettle, which ultimately means there are still people out of work.

The Zeeland/Holland area provides “a glimmer of hope” that all of Michigan needs, he said.

The future means a lot to a family man like Schoettle. He and Janet have three grown children: a daughter in Illinois who is an attorney, a son in Zeeland who works as an actuary, and another son who is in the Air National Guard. All three are married and together have produced seven grandchildren so far.

For relaxation, he plays basketball with an informal group — “young and old” — about three times a week. He also enjoys reading and reads a lot, he said: books such as the bestseller “Rework” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founder and partner, respectively, of 37signals, a Chicago-based web application company.

Does Zeeland have problems?

“I think everyone has challenges,” replied Schoettle. “I think the challenge is keeping everyone positive and looking to collaborate together and move forward.

“There are people who are unemployed and there are people who have needs. And although there are many churches and many organizations trying to respond to those, we need to work together.”

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