D.C. profiles – Lee Schoenecker

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Lee Schoenecker (right) stands with his son, John, after John was admitted to the Supreme Court. (Photo courtesy John Schoenecker)

In six months, Lee Schoenecker will turn 80.

As he prepares to enter his ninth decade, his mind is sharp, his step is purposeful and his handshake firm. His friends in the Chevy Chase neighborhood where he has lived for more than 40 years look forward to his continued participation in local affairs for years to come.

But if his career path as a civilian working for the Air Force had followed a slightly different time table, he might not have reached the landmark birthday he is preparing to celebrate.

In 1999, Schoenecker  (pronounced SHEN-ecker) was working for the Air Force, dealing with the base closures that followed the end of the Cold War. By then his department had been housed at the Pentagon for 11 years.

Then in 2001, the year of Schoenecker’s retirement, another enemy attacked the nation, sending a plane crashing into the symbol of American military might on 9/11.

“In 1999, remodelling began at the Pentagon, and my department moved to Crystal City,” Schoenecker said. “If they had moved us back earlier – and if I had waited three more months to retire – I would have been where the plane hit. I would have been right in that place.”

A kind providence preserved Schoenecker from that grim fate, instead allowing him to participate in the life of his community, family and chosen profession for the last two decades.  

In the 1980s, Schoenecker served for 10 years on the advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) in Chevy Chase, part of the time as chairman. His current successor in the top job, Randy Speck, said Schoenecker remains an important member of the local community.

“He’s part of the living history of this neighborhood,” Speck said. “Perhaps because of Lee’s experience as a city planner and because of his years on the ANC, he’s closely attuned to the warp and weft of the community. He’ll often call or write me with an observation from his walks by Lafayette Park or along Nebraska Avenue. His insights at ANC meetings are always helpful, and I look forward to his contributions.”

On a recent Saturday, when this reporter showed up to interview him, Schoenecker was at home engaged in a favorite avocation: reading a book about American history (on that particular day, David Brinkley’s “Washington Goes to War”).

When asked about his eight decades, Schoenecker, like many members of his generation, often speaks about his life through the lens of history, and of the traditions and memory of what a poet has called “my own, my native land.”

Schoenecker described the day of his birth in 1938.

“It was Constitution Day – and the same day as a massive hurricane in the Northeast,” he said.

Schoenecker’s hometown is Lake Mills, a small Wisconsin town  between Milwaukee and Madison.

His father, Ed, was a small town doctor, and his mother, Dagmar, a nurse. They had met at a hospital in Chicago where both were employed.

“Dad did a lot of sailing on Lake Michigan,” Schoenecker said. Dr. Schoenecker chose to establish a practice in Lake Mills because of its location on the shores of Rock Lake, which Schoenecker calls “one of the cleanest in Wisconsin.”

Schoenecker is the grandson of immigrants, and speaks of them with pride.

The first American Schoenecker, his great-grandfather, grew up near Hanover in Germany in the 19th century.

“He went to work at a shoe factory in Baltimore, and 25 years later started his own shoe factory,” Schoenecker said. “He lived to be almost a hundred.”

His mother’s parents were Norwegians who settled in Westby, a small town in another part of Wisconsin.

“My maternal grandfather was a carpenter, a very fit fellow,” said Schoenecker. “He built his own house. He made ski jumps, among other things – a very Norwegian thing to do.”

The carpenter’s daughter grew up speaking Norwegian, and put her knowledge of the language to use when she and her young son visited her parents in Westby while Schoenecker’s father was away serving in World War II.

“My mother would order groceries in Norwegian,” Schoenecker said.

Her facility in her childhood tongue later faded from disuse.

“Her mother was always mad at my mother because she forgot her Norwegian,” Schoenecker recalled.

He has recently watered his Norwegian roots with a visit to Oslo.

Schoenecker’s childhood memories of World War II include his father’s visits home.

“I remember waiting at the railroad station for my father to come see us, in his Navy uniform,” he said.

Schoenecker attended the public schools in Lake Mills, participating in “everything,” as he put it – football, golf, basketball, baseball, the high school band and chorus. He was class president, and has organized several class reunions. He praised the advantages of attending school in a small Midwestern town.

“You can do anything,” he said. “You get so good [in sports] because you’re playing with these kids from the first grade. I knew [classmate] Duke Budig had a good fastball from the time I was in fifth grade. It helped when I got into high school.

“My oldest son was easily a better athlete than I was, but he went to Gonzaga [a large urban high school] and was cut from the basketball team as a freshman.”

His Norman Rockwell boyhood included stints sacking groceries, working as a lifeguard and in a hardware store, taking care of greens on a golf course and doing construction work.

Although he calls himself an old-fashioned Wisconsin Progressive, Schoenecker said his youth coincided with “the age of Eisenhower,” and he remembers Dwight Eisenhower as an effective president and a fundamentally decent man.

“I started high school the year he went into the White House, and finished college the year he left,” he said.

Schoenecker can recall only one black resident of Lake Mills, but said another minority group were somewhat disdained: migrant workers from Oklahoma who toiled in the “muck farms” on reclaimed wetlands nearby. Out of courtesy for his interlocutor, a son of Oklahoma, Schoenecker was circumspect in his account of Cheesehead-Okie relations in the age of Eisenhower.

Schoenecker has two brothers and a sister, all younger. He said they have a reunion every year – “this year in Sheboygan, the bratwurst capital of America.”

Sixty years after he left for college, Schoenecker still speaks of his home town with pride.

“Lake Mills is a beautiful little town,” he said. “They have a great Main Street program these days. There’s a farmers market every Wednesday in the summer. The Knickerbocker Ice Festival is held every winter.”

When the young Schoenecker was thinking about what he might like to do with his life, he came across an article in “Life” or “Look” magazine – he cannot recall which – entitled “Should your son become a city planner?” He noted ruefully that the times excluded the idea that a daughter might also consider such a career.

For the Jack Armstrong of Lake Mills, it was a eureka moment.

Schoenecker found the multi-disciplinary character of the profession appealing.

“Economics, architecture, politics, geography are all important,” he said. “You deal with so many types of things.”  

He cited an example from the career of the head man in charge at Metro.

“Paul Wiedefeld’s [master’s] degree was from Rutgers in urban planning,” Schoenecker noted. “It’s good training for his job, if you know how to manage – which he does.”

After high school, Schoenecker enrolled at Carroll College in Milwaukee, his father’s hometown, but finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. The urban and regional planning department was in the process of getting started, and some scholars with national reputations joined the faculty around that time. He stayed at Madison to get his graduate degree in the same department.

After grad school, Schoenecker first worked in the field in Brookline, Mass., then took a job with the state planning office in New York.

“Little did I realize what a miserable place Albany, New York, was in those days,” he said.

He was glad to shake the dust of Albany from his feet to take a government job in Washington.

Schoenecker became active in the young adults club at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, where he was living at the time. At church, he met another federal employee and Wisconsin native, Elizabeth Kempinger.

Under the guise of studying the urban planning that had gone into preparing for the 1967 World’s Fair, Schoenecker joined the rest of the young adults club – including Kempinger – on a trip to Montreal.

“In my opinion, Expo ‘67 was the last great world’s fair,” he said.

The expedition to Montreal also marked a milestone in his courtship. Details of the trip, such as a bootleg walleye pike brought home from Canada on the airplane and “the greatest tour of the city you could imagine” with his host, remain fixed in Schoenecker’s memory.

The couple were married in 1969. Mrs. Schoenecker had a long career at the Agency for International Development.

The Schoeneckers have two sons and four grandchildren.

For 13 years, Schoenecker worked at the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Keeping up his connections with the Sooner State, he worked on a special project there while Oklahoma congressman Carl Albert was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I saw my first tornado there,” he recalled.

“Intergovernmental relations” was Schoenecker’s bread and butter in those years.

“During the Great Society [of the Lyndon Johnson administration], grants were flowing left and right,” Schoenecker said. He worked to persuade governors to establish bodies to distribute the grants efficiently.

During a 1969 trip to Georgia on regional planning business, Schoenecker addressed a gathering organized by Georgia Power and Light.

“A future governor and president of the United States was in that room [where I spoke],” he said, referring to Jimmy Carter. Bert Lance, his future boss at OMB during the Carter administration, was also present that day.

Besides his professional duties, Schoenecker took an active part in local affairs after he moved to Chevy Chase in the ‘70s. As an ANC member, he took part in many decisions affecting the neighborhood. And he kept his ear to the ground for District proposals that would have a local impact.

When reconstruction of Military Road, McKinley Street and Western Avenue began under Marion Barry’s administration, Schoenecker made monthly visits to the project foreman. A plan to detour bus routes onto hilly streets galvanized Schoenecker to action.  

“I had a good working relationship with a staffer for the councilmember,” he said. “I told him ‘This is insanity,’ we worked with the city, found a better plan.

“It was a matter of being aggressive, of getting to know the people involved, to make sure it worked well,” he said, in an elementary lesson for serving effectively on an ANC.  

After the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the OMB was downsized. Schoenecker got a civilian job at the Pentagon, working in the ‘80s on military base expansions in the U.S., and in the ‘90s on base closures.

In that first decade, when the Cold War still simmered, he worked with local governments in Nebraska and Wyoming on the deployment of the MX missile, which he called “the most dangerous weapon in the world.” Schoenecker quoted approvingly the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a senator from New York (“my favorite senator”), who said that the day the MX missile was decommissioned after the Cold War was “the happiest day of my life.”

The round of military base closures stateside that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall required economic impact planning, which was part of Schoenecker’s remit at the time. He described a variety of bureaucratic ping pong current then.

“They [local authorities] throw blue smoke at you,” he said. “We threw purple smoke back at them.”

Since his 2001 retirement, Schoenecker has remained active with the American Planning Association. He helped organize a panel on resilience for a conference in New Orleans that is taking place this week.

Schoenecker also still holds strong and astute opinions about planning issues facing the region.

“Washington’s population is projected to rise to a million by 2045,” he said. “To me that’s impossible in 69 square miles. San Francisco is smaller, but it doesn’t have a height limit [on buildings]. D.C. achieved its highest population, 801,000, in 1950. Household size has declined since then. It’s impossible on this very limited land to get up to a million.”

Besides reading voraciously, in his retirement Schoenecker and his wife enjoy attending Washington Nationals games. He goes for daily walks, visits the gym regularly and works in his yard. He still regularly attends meetings of the Chevy Chase ANC. He mostly listens, but current commissioners pay attention when he speaks.

And he is looking forward to traveling out to Wisconsin for that family reunion in Sheboygan in a few months.