This is one in a series of profiles on the five Columbia City Council candidates.
COLUMBIA — Barbara Hoppe remembers when the future of Stephens Lake was in doubt.
607 Bluff Dale Drive
In 1999, as Stephens College was considering whether to sell the 116-acre property to developers, Hoppe took action. With artistic help from her husband, Mike Sleadd, she helped found the Coalition to Save Stephens Lake to persuade city officials to preserve the park. The college, she says, tried to convince the city that the water was polluted and unfit for swimming.
Hoppe knew the charge was unfounded. But it was former Mayor Darwin Hindman, who had been swimming at the park since his childhood, who took the drastic step to illustrate that fact.
“He just went down to the water and got a paper cup, dipped it in the water and drank it,” Hoppe recalls. “I thought, ‘Darwin, what if you get sick? This is not going to be good!’”
Hindman was fine, though, and city voters later approved a park sales tax that allowed the city to buy the land.
On an unusually balmy Monday afternoon in mid-March, Hoppe was doing what she has done hundreds of times with friends, family and constituents. She strolled around the park she helped preserve 12 years ago. A slight breeze provided some relief from the sun and sent ripples across the surface of Stephens Lake.
Katy, her thigh-high Great Pyrenees dog — named for the trail on which Hoppe found her — bobbed obediently on the trail next to her.
Although it was unseasonably warm, the day was nothing like the dog-day summer afternoons in the early 1980s that first brought Hoppe and her daughters, Danielle and Mariah Eldred, to the park.
“We didn’t have an air conditioner back then,” Hoppe explained. She paused on the boardwalk zigzagging across the lake to note where the boathouse used to stand on the southwest bank of the lake and where children now scampered over playground equipment.
Emily van Schenkhof made friends with Hoppe’s daughter Danielle when they were classmates at Jefferson Junior High School in the early '90s. She remembers visiting the park and the unique atmosphere that surrounded the swimming hole in the middle of Columbia during those summers 20 years ago.
“It was just a nice group of people that came there,” van Schenkhof said.
Hoppe’s family has changed with the layout of the park. Her daughters are now grown and successful professionals. Danielle Eldred, who was married at the park, finished her law degree at MU last year. She lives a stone’s throw from where she learned to swim more than 20 summers ago and can see from her front porch the spot where she exchanged vows with her husband in 2003.
Mariah Eldred earned an architecture degree and now lives in Colorado and designs houses.
Sleadd, Hoppe's second husband, is an associate professor and chair of the Art Department at Columbia College.
But Hoppe has not forgotten the lessons she learned fighting to save the park for families like hers.
“You’ve got to make sure your community preserves the things of the past,” Hoppe says. It’s February, and she’s sitting in an office at the Daniel Boone City Building. Since joining the Columbia City Council in 2006, Hoppe has seen the building’s $26 million renovation, the election of a new mayor and the hiring of a new city manager. The goal of ensuring that the council considers Columbia’s recent and distant past in planning for the future has motivated her to run again.
“We need to have continuity and a sense of perspective,” Hoppe says. “There’s still lots of things on my to-do list.”
Hoppe’s perspective was fostered more than 40 years ago as a student of history, political science and education at the University of Michigan. The lessons of those years still stick with her.
“It’s not enough to be successful just today,” Hoppe says. As she glanced out the window at the streets of downtown blanketed in a February gray, Hoppe talked excitedly about future projects and students’ participation in city government.
“My goal is to make Columbia a shining star of the Midwest,” Hoppe says.
After graduation, Hoppe taught at a public high school near Richmond, Mich. She remembers those years as a strange time in America’s history. The Watergate scandal dominated the headlines of U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times, that she would share with students. Insulated in rural Michigan, many of them couldn’t believe what they were reading.
“Some of them thought I was making it up,” Hoppe says.
Hoppe moved to Columbia in the late 1970s and still remembers her first foray into local politics. She and 300 community members successfully petitioned the city to provide monthly recycling services.
“That was just a simple act of a small number of residents,” Hoppe says. “Look what it’s produced.”
Hoppe worked toward her law degree at MU, which she completed in 1987, while taking care of her family. She remembers the difficulty of balancing her studies and being a mom and recalls taking her daughters to MU and the library to complete her coursework.
Danielle Eldred said her memories of those days are scarce; she was only 6 when Hoppe earned her degree. She does recall exploring the old Law School library, which she thought was “creepy” in a mysterious way. She said her mom’s favorite story is about how she drew a picture of one of Hoppe’s law professors that distracted the class.
After completing legal studies of her own, Danielle Eldred said she’s amazed by the amount of time and care Hoppe was able to show her and her sister throughout her schooling.
“I have no idea how she did it,” Danielle Eldred said. “I have no idea at all.”
The juggling was practice for what was to come. Hoppe spent 22 years as an administrative attorney in the state public defender system, the last five of which were during her time on the council. When van Schenkhof and Danielle Eldred went to college together at MU in the late '90s, though, Hoppe made time to spend with them.
“She’s given me a tongue-lashing or two,” van Schenkhof admits. “She’s disciplined me. She’s hugged me when I’m crying. She’s been an amazing person in my life.”
Danielle Eldred said Hoppe's busy work schedule would often occupy her thoughts after hours. Once, Eldred and van Schenkhof asked Hoppe to make them mashed potatoes. When the girls came upstairs to check on her progress, Hoppe was instead making potato soup.
Danielle Eldred laughed recalling the story. The pitch of her laugh raises slightly as she finishes, just like her mom's.
“I think it was very sweet,” Danielle Eldred said. “She’s always been super-busy, and she’s always been there for us.”
Hoppe’s efforts at Stephens Lake in 2000 earned her the Citation Award from the Missouri Parks and Recreation Association on behalf of the Coalition to Save Stephens Lake.
Alyce Turner, who met Hoppe during those summers at the lake, said the park would not exist without Hoppe’s efforts.
Now, Katy stops to splash around in a pool at the top of the waterfall, which swells with rainwater. Hoppe stops to take in a panoramic view of the park, which contains numerous reminders of the history she has established in Columbia. The hill where her daughters learned to cross-country ski forms the eastern boundary of the lake. Daffodils are already blooming in the front yard of Danielle Eldred’s home just across the street. A bench bearing Hoppe and Sleadd's names, thanking them for their work to save the park, invites visitors to sit in the shade of a large oak on the south side of the lake.
With her first election to the council, Hoppe found herself sitting in offices all day. To avoid that rut, she began scheduling walks around the park, wearing down its winding trails as residents talked to her about potholes, sidewalks and stormwater erosion.
“City government is great in that there’s problems and solutions,” Hoppe says in her office.
Turner says she’s heard numerous residents praise Hoppe’s efforts to listen.
“She’s honest, ethical and very responsive to the people in her community,” Turner said.
The conversation in Hoppe's office quickly turns to the True/False Film Fest. She takes the opportunity to brag about her son-in-law, Michael Lising — or “Mikey,” as Hoppe calls him. He was the sole graphic designer for the festival for years and designed its logo.
Van Schenkhof joined Hoppe and Sleadd at True/False, just as she has had New Year’s celebrations with her “second mom” for years. She said the couple put her and her young friends to shame with their late-night dancing.
“(She) and Mike are two of the most active people out on the town in Columbia,” van Schenkhof said.
Last year, Hoppe retired, freeing up some time for travel and other interests. The camera bag slung over her shoulder and pad full of scribbled notes are for a photography class she’s auditing at Columbia College this spring.
Van Schenkhof said she’s happy to see Hoppe with some time to devote to herself following her retirement because she has given a lot of herself to her job, family and community over the years.
“She’s not good at saying no,” van Schenkhof says.
Hoppe says that perhaps the most valuable lesson of history is the lesson of perspective, and the universally valuable skill to identify an exit strategy. Hoppe said she is willing and eager to serve on the council for another three years to complete projects she has started, though her perspective allows her to ponder her own exit strategy from a professional life packed with service to Columbia.
Standing in Stephens Lake Park more than a decade after lobbying for its preservation, Hoppe doesn’t see an end to her public service, regardless of the outcome of April’s election.
“I won’t have any trouble, personally, filling my time constructively,” Hoppe says, Katy at her side and surrounded by laughing young couples and families building their own memories at Stephens Lake.