Interview with author, Leeanne Seaver
Editor’s Note: In December 2020, the Vicksburg Foundation commissioned Leeanne Seaver, Vicksburg resident and published author, to write the book, In Support of Community: The History of the Vicksburg Foundation, which highlights the legacy and accomplishments of community leadership. Seaver’s responses follow.
Why did the Vicksburg Foundation decide to do a book?
Rudy Callen, president of the Vicksburg Foundation, put it this way: “In June 2020, I opened our board meeting and looked thoughtfully around the table at the trustees there. These individuals put their heart and soul into community. It seems to go beyond dollars and volunteerism for them. And it dawned on me that three of them were well into their 80s, and one was in his 90s. Vicksburg had just lost an amazing community leader, Sue Moore, a month earlier, and our longstanding Foundation attorney Pete Livingston passed away unexpectedly at age 60 only the week before.
Callen continued: “Well, I’d been a trustee since 2012, and stepped into the Foundation president role after Bill Oswalt stepped down in 2016. My leadership is fairly pragmatic: I can oversee financials, handle prep, build the agenda, facilitate discussions, and follow-up on actions between meetings. But documenting the lived-history and this group’s impact to the community for nearly 80s years is really not my calling—or my story to tell. That prompted an idea.
“Vicksburg loves its history. Understanding the past provides important knowledge for moving forward. I knew somehow the history of the Vicksburg Foundation needed to be documented,” Callen said.
How did you approach writing this book?
To tell this story in context to the community is what made this book commission so interesting to me. The Vicksburg Foundation could have just produced a glorified annual report – chronicling millions of dollars distributed since 1943 when it was initially established by the Lee Paper Company. But the trustees gave me a lot of freedom, so I explored the relationship of the Foundation with the community it serves. That was challenging because the Foundation has always remained off-stage so the spotlight remains on the organizations it supports. Lots of people will be surprised to learn there is a such thing as the Vicksburg Foundation, and that it has had a significant hand in virtually everything related to the quality of life we enjoy here. Yet it’s comprised of regular people we all know. I loved hearing the trustees talk about being in Showboat or their great grandparents coming to this country to work at the old paper mill or the faith they have in this community.
The Foundation is not an exclusive club that meets in some ivory tower, it’s a group of leaders who’ve been willing to take on the mantle of responsibility without compensation or credit. The trustees are people whose commitment to this community help ensure South Kalamazoo County not only survive the same hard times that have shuttered other small towns, but actually thrive.
Did anything surprise you as you researched the history of the Foundation?
The stories unfolded in the most fascinating way. It wasn’t just how helpful the financial support has been, particularly during the pandemic, but the integrity of leadership that’s characterized the Foundation from the beginning. For example, that little open block of downtown that I’ve always known is “Oswalt Park” was named after one of the early Foundation trustees, Ferris “Uncle Jimmy” Oswalt. I didn’t know that the Foundation provided funds to help make that park possible. And I didn’t know that during World War II, “Uncle Jimmy” was Major F.H. Oswalt who commanded a battalion of “colored troops” in the North African campaign to drive back Rommel. As I interviewed his grandson Gary Hallam, we both pondered how a farm kid from Vicksburg came to that role in history. Gary says that story has been lost to time, but “Most likely it was because my grandfather saw the worth of a man in his intent and actions, and not by the color of his skin.”
As someone who grew up in Vicksburg, how did it feel to write a book about your hometown?
It was intimidating but enlightening. I moved out of Michigan right after high school graduation at a time when “Last one out of the state, turn off the lights” was a common bumper sticker. When I moved back a few years ago, I was like, “Oh man, the Tastee Freeze closed!” But there was Apple Knockers, a sophisticated performing arts center in the high school, a bike trail, festivals at the historical village, and the old boarded-up train station was now the Depot Museum.
Plus, the derelict paper mill was rising again like a phoenix from the ashes. I learned that the entrepreneur behind that endeavor is a local son whose ancestor, Joel Clark, was here at the same time “Honest John” Vickers was getting his mill going back in 1830. The Clark family stuck around these parts—in fact, our newspaper publisher, the late Sue Clark Moore, descended from Joel Clark. Her son Chris Moore is the mastermind who’s revving up the Mill that long sustained the economy of this area. The Foundation had an important role in securing that abandoned structure and property for the Village of Vicksburg in 2013, and Moore has leveraged that into a whole new, robust life with Paper City, LLC. That backstory is in this book.
I feel incredibly proud of my hometown, and so privileged to bring to light the part the Vicksburg Foundation has played in continuously improving the quality of life here.
When and where will the book be available?
Editor’s Note: If all goes as planned, In Support of Community: The History of the Vicksburg Foundation will be published in early May. It will be available in our libraries in Vicksburg and Schoolcraft, and for purchase on Amazon. We will provide an update in the next issue of the South County News with more information about all of this—including places where the book may be purchased locally. The Foundation isn’t interested in profiting from sales but in trying to ensure that this book will be accessible to anyone who wants one. Considering how many people in this community are part of this story, that’s a very important goal.