This article is from the January 2019 Grand Rapids Magazine. Available on newsstands now or via subscription.
Vernis Schad has been part of the fabric of Grand Rapids for more than 70 years. She’s seen the best the city has to offer and lived through some of the most difficult years. These days, Schad is pleased a hundred times over that we now have a woman as mayor of Grand Rapids.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is women becoming involved in politics,” said Schad, who is 93 and lives at Porter Hills. She helped with Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’s mayoral campaign in 2015, a natural fit for Schad, who celebrated her birthday on the day Bliss was first elected as a city commissioner back in 2005.
“There are now women in the workforce and who own businesses. That wasn’t true when I was young,” Schad said.
Her ancestors first settled in Zeeland, then migrated to northwest Iowa, where she was born. When World War II commenced, her father moved the family to California so he could work in the shipyards. She returned to attend Calvin College for a year, went back to California and then moved to Grand Rapids permanently when she married George Schad in 1947.
Her children got her involved in the community. In those days, Grand Rapids was full of tiny school districts scattered across the area. Her children attended North Park Public School, a K-8 district northeast of Grand Rapids. The school, on Cheney Avenue and North Park Street, still stands today.
In the 1960s, a law was passed that all school districts had to offer K-12 education. The small districts could consolidate or be annexed to the city of Grand Rapids. North Park Principal Helen Weller “dragged me to all these meetings,” she said, “and that’s how I got my start.”
The North Park district, which ran from 3 Mile to 4 Mile roads, opted for annexation. Schad got the bug and became involved in parent-teacher organizations. She ran for the Grand Rapids Board of Education in 1972 and served until 1984, including four years as president.
Schad was part of the struggle for racial integration in public schools in the early 1970s, a hard time for her and the city. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out a way to make it work. At the time, I don’t know how we could have done it better,” she said. “It spilled into the community and there was a lot of tension. My biggest regret is not being able to have school integration without the racial tension.”
Her years serving GRPS included developing the Blandford and Zoo schools and City High School, as well as developing a partnership program with schools in Costa Rica.
Schad’s advocacy for woman also was behind her helping create the Women’s Resource Center in 1973, a nonprofit that helps women with job readiness and other skills, and the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council in 1990. She was president of the World Affairs Council for a year and served on the Progressive Women’s Alliance and, as a nonagenarian, was elected precinct delegate for Porter Hills.
Schad’s “met them” list includes Helen Claytor, the first African-American president of the local and then national YWCA and an integration activist; Govs. William Millikan and Jennifer Granholm; Mayor Bliss; and former president and first lady Gerald and Betty Ford.
She’s still well aware of the challenges women face today.
“Sexual harassment is a big issue that needs to be addressed, and we’re far from being successful in dealing with that,” she said. “And equal pay. We’re not talking about that anymore, but it’s an issue we really need to face.”
Schad said her life’s work hinges on the “importance of being involved in activities that give other people a chance in life, in doing things that improve the community.” She urges younger women to “be part of a movement to make your community a better place.”
One chance encounter sums up her love of life and service: “I met a woman on a plane from Denver who asked if I was Vernis Schad. She said that she’d been divorced when her children were young and got help from the Women’s Resource Center. She went back to work and eventually helped Amway open business in China.”
Photo of Vernis Schad by Johnny Quirin