Shawnee to honor late Donna Sawyer, long-time community volunteer, with memorial garden

Shawnee is honoring the memory of Donna Sawyer (right), a long-time volunteer who died of cancer last month, with the dedication of a new garden in her name at Listowel Park. Above, Donna with her husband, Neal Sawyer, who took over his wife's seat on the Shawnee Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. All photos courtesy Neal Sawyer.

In honor of the late Donna Sawyer, a long-time volunteer with Old Shawnee Days and Shawnee’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the city is planting a garden in Listowel Park.

The city will dedicate the garden at the Listowel Park Sister City Plaza later this summer and name it The Donna Sawyer Garden of Service.

Sawyer died May 15 from cancer.

‘She was my life’

A Sawyer family picture of Donna and Neal Sawyer and their four daughters. From left, Emily Grunder, Laura Hoppas, Donna Sawyer, Neal Sawyer, Stephanie Clayton and Shannon Allen.

City leaders in Shawnee have fond memories of Sawyer, who led a engaged, civically minded life, involving herself in community events and volunteer work.

Her husband, Neal Sawyer, is filling her shoes by finishing out Donna’s latest term on the Shawnee Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, on which she served for 23 years.

“She was my life, and that’s just the way it was,” he said. “I was always, you know, ‘Why are you getting involved in this when you don’t have to?’ But then I was glad that she did because that’s what she wanted to do.”

Neal Sawyer, a former Shawnee city councilmember, called his late wife an excellent mother, a fierce supporter of fair treatment for all, stern but never vicious and someone who didn’t like “the politics of everything.”

They were married 46 years.

Like Donna, he hopes to keep his focus on the parks and rec board on quality recreational opportunities for the whole community.

A beloved mother

Donna Sawyer was actively involved with Friends of Shawnee Town and the Old Shawnee Days Society up until she died. She often served in leadership roles in those organizations as well as the Shawnee Irish-American Club and the Shawnee Sesquicentennial Committee.

Donna (front and center) and Neal Sawyer (behind her) were both the Grand Marshal for the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2012.

Carol Gonzalez, former city manager of Shawnee and a family friend, gave a eulogy at Sawyer’s funeral Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

“She was smart and funny,” Gonzalez said. “She was mischievous and silly. She never let an adventure pass her by. She was an optimist — and not because she was naive by any stretch, she chose to see the best and expect the best.

“She was an unapologetic feminist, a continuous giver, a natural leader and an amazing community builder. And she was flat out fun to be with.”

Two of Donna’s daughters, Emily Grunder and Stephanie Clayton (a Kansas state representative from Overland Park), said they will miss their mother deeply.

Grunder has fond memories of volunteering alongside her mother at city events.

Donna Sawyer (third from left) also volunteered for Tour de Shawnee. Photo courtesy city of Shawnee.

“Several years ago, I was given the ‘Irishman of the Year’ award by the Irish club,” Grunder said. “Mom and Dad both previously received this award, and since the award is presented by the president of the club, Mom presented the award to me. Definitely a proud moment for me, and one I will now cherish forever.

“She was the best mom ever, and I’ll strive forever to be like her.”

Clayton described her mother, above all, as a vital, energetic and fun person to be around.

She remembers her mother’s can-do attitude, like when she pushed to bring curbside recycling pickup to Shawnee and worked to make the city’s parks accessible and fun.

“When I talked to other people who have lost her — which, you know, it was definitely a loss to  her community, especially in Shawnee — that’s one of the things that gets brought up, is how much fun she was,” Clayton said. “She was always the sort of person who, if she saw something that was wrong, any type of injustice, anything that needed fixing, she just went and fixed it. Just her dedication to making her corner of the world a better place.”

If she wasn’t participating, Donna Sawyer would watch the entire Old Shawnee days parade from start to finish

Tonya Lecuru, deputy park and recreation director for Shawnee, noted that Donna Sawyer also volunteered at “countless” community events, including the Shawnee Great Grillers Barbeque Contest, Tour de Shawnee and Cinderella’s Ball.

She was also the 2019 Old Shawnee Days Parade Grand Marshal.

“Donna contributed to the community in so many ways as a leader and as a supporter, always offering a word of encouragement and doing what needed to be done,” Lecuru said. “She always made sure that you knew that she appreciated whatever you had done to assist. She was a leader that led by example, she motivated people with words of appreciation and encouragement.”

You can read Donna Sawyer’s obituary published by Amos Funeral Home here.