Humanitarian Schmidgall gets nod as Normal’s 2023 Citizen of the Year

By Ken Keenan for Chronicle Media

Roger Schmidgall, an active Rotarian and a past president of the Sunset Rotary Club, was honored for his humanitarian efforts, both in the U.S. and abroad. (Sunset Rotary Club of Bloomington-Normal Facebook photo)

A self-described, “normal citizen living in Normal,” Roger Schmidgall was planning to attend a Rotary Club picnic early last month when he learned the event had been abruptly canceled.

Instead, he accepted an invitation to attend Normal’s Appreciation Reception, hosted annually by Mayor Chris Koos. Not knowing what to expect, Schmidgall was quite surprised when Koos presented him with the Town of Normal’s 2023 Citizen of the Year award.

“It was the shock of my life, truly,” Schmidgall said. “It turned out that the mayor and the president of the Rotary Club secretly canceled the picnic. I had no idea what was going to happen, and all of a sudden, the mayor started speaking, and then I was totally shocked. It was the biggest surprise I’ve had in my life. I had no words, except thank you.”

Schmidgall, an active Rotarian and a past president of the Sunset Rotary Club of Bloomington-Normal, was honored for his humanitarian efforts, both in the U.S. and abroad. Since 2000, the 70-year-old Schmidgall has traveled with the World Christian Movement, “to educate Christians on taking God to other people,” he said. His earliest trips with the organization include visits to India, China, Japan and Pakistan, the latter of which involved building shelters for people affected by an earthquake in 2005.

“We built little hut-type houses,” Schmidgall said. “We spent one week there, and it was one of the most impactful weeks of my life.”

After joining the Rotary Club in 2009, Schmidgall began traveling to the Middle East, and helped fund a playground project in Bethlehem’s West Bank. In 2014, he left his post as a senior systems analyst for State Farm Insurance, in Bloomington, ending a 42-year career with the company. He then began working as a volunteer administrator with BibleTelling, a Bloomington-based religious organization.

“BibleTelling takes the stories of the Bible and recrafts them into stories you can share,” Schmidgall explained. “I didn’t want to retire, so I ‘redeployed’ and came in with them.”

Schmidgall’s work with BibleTelling resulted in trips to Jordan and Israel, during which he said 25-30 participants were assigned a Bible story and then visited the sites where those stories took place. This fall, Schmidgall will travel to Turkey, Greece and Rome, Italy to help tell the Bible stories of Paul on location.

Through the Rotary Club, Schmidgall also connected with Friends Forever International, a humanitarian organization that brings teenagers together from different countries. In one instance, FFI brought 10 Middle Eastern teens — five from a Jewish school and five from an Arab school, along with two teachers from each school — to Bloomington.

“They come here and do everything together,” Schmidgall said. “It’s a really neat experience. If they disagreed on a topic, we’d help them come together and work through their differences. They find more in common than they realized.”

In presenting Schmidgall with his award, Mayor Koos said, “It is my honor to recognize Roger for his positive impact and dedication to creating a welcoming community, attentive to all. He exemplifies a lifelong effort to support underserved populations — locally, nationally and internationally. From behind the scenes, away from the spotlight, Roger is a powerful voice in building community and an ambassador of Town of Normal values. Roger inspires others, nurtures others, builds strong relationships and demonstrates empathy. I’m proud to know him, and I’m pleased to recognize his impact on our community by designating him as Citizen of the Year.”

Growing up on a farm just outside of Bloomington, in Central Illinois, Schmidgall said he never imagined that he’d end up traveling around the globe on humanitarian missions.

“It blows my mind,” he said. “Up to 2000, I was never really outside the U.S. Since then, I’m blessed to travel extensively and make friends all over the world.”

Schmidgall said his experiences overseas have proven to be uplifting, both in his religious beliefs and in how he views his place in the world.

“I grew up in a conservative, dogmatic environment,” he said. “But I’ve come to realize I’m wrong on some things, so I want to be open regarding my understanding of truth and not be so judgmental. I want to take what is offered and realize that my opinion, my position, could be modified. My view has become more a view of the future as the Bible paints it. We have a citizenship in the kingdom of God, and that citizenship transcends natural boundaries.”

Added Schmidgall: “I’m always learning, always growing, and hopefully improving for the better. I’ve been blessed and I’m just trying to pay it forward.”