Belleville East

Lancer Wall of Fame

Gary Hemmer Bio

When Gary left the halls of Belleville East High School in 1971, he was not thinking about becoming a banker, and certainly not an industry leader at the national level.

Although born at a Florida naval hospital while his father was stationed there, Gary grew up and lived most of his adult life in Swansea. He is the son of Dean and Shirley Hemmer, who still live in Swansea and who both graduated from Belleville Township High School before there was a Belleville East.

In high school, he was a member of the National Honor Society, the Varsity Club, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was a three-year varsity letterman in track and also lettered in football his senior year.

After graduation, Gary went to the University of Illinois to study Actuarial Science. When it soon became apparent that he could not master a slide rule, he changed his major to Finance with dreams of working in the finance department of a major corporation. After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Finance from the University of Illinois in 1975, he took a job at First National Bank in St. Louis, became hooked on banking, and abandoned plans to work in corporate finance. During his time there, Gary also attended night classes at St. Louis University and received his Masters of Business Administration in 1978.  He became an assistant vice president before leaving the bank in 1981 to work for First National Bank of Belleville, which later became Magna Bank.

Gary was an executive vice president at Magna until it was acquired by Union Planters in 1998.  While at Magna, he also graduated from the American Bankers Association Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University.

In 1999, Gary joined First National Bank of Waterloo as President and CEO. This was his third and final “First National” bank. Gary served FNBW for 21 years before retiring in 2020. However, he continues to serve as Chairman of the Board of Directors.

During his 45 years in banking, Gary also served the industry at both the state and national levels.  He served a term as Chairman and was also a board member of the Illinois Bankers Association, one of the country’s largest banking associations. He was named Illinois Banker of the Year in 2007.

Gary was an officer for the American Bankers Association, serving as its Treasurer from 2012-2014. During his 20-plus years with the ABA, he also served on the Board of Directors, Membership Committee, Government Relations Council as Chairman, and member of the faculty and advisory board of the Stonier Graduate School of Banking. He continues to serve as Chairman of the ABA Insurance Services board.

As a banker, Gary has always considered it important to give back to the communities in which he lived and worked. Over the years he has served with the National Children’s Cancer Society, Call For Help, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Boy Scouts of America. He was President of the Belleville Optimist Club, Chairman of the Board of Directors for Camp Wartburg – a Christian youth camp and retreat center, President of the Waterloo Chamber of Commerce, President of the Waterloo Rotary Club, and Assistant District Governor for the Southern Illinois Rotary District, Treasurer of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Southern Illinois District, Chairman of the Monroe County YMCA board, and member of the United Way Illinois Advisory Board.

Gary was also a BTHS District 201 board member for 16 years and chaired the 1998 District 201 Building Referendum which was approved to build a new Belleville West school and make renovations and add buildings to the East campus.

Most important to Gary, however, is his Christian faith. He is active at Zion Lutheran Church in Belleville and has served as Chairman of the congregation and on several committees throughout the years.

Gary has received awards for the Northwestern Financial Review’s Rising Star for Illinois, Ten Outstanding Young Persons in Illinois, Belleville Jaycees Distinguished Service Award, and Outstanding Young Men of America.

He enjoys bicycling and has ridden in the MS Bike Ride to raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis for the last 23 years. He also enjoys traveling and is an avid University of Illinois sports fan.

Gary considers his family to be his greatest reward and blessing. Gary and his wife, Cheryl, have two sons and two daughters-in-law who all graduated from Belleville East. Jeff and his wife, Laura, live in Fairview Heights and have eight children. Jared and his wife, Meagan, live in Millstadt and have two children.

Rita Menke Bio

As one of eight siblings from Highland, Indiana, Rita Menke grew up during the pre-Title IX era, which meant that competitive sports for girls were unavailable when she attended Bishop Noll High School.  Her sports were limited to student manager for the boys’ baseball team and a member of the co-ed swim team.

Attending St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, Rita played basketball and ran track. She also worked for the sports information office writing articles and keeping score for the baseball team. During that time, her interest in coaching was realized. She has since been inducted into the St. Joseph’s College Hall of Fame (2002).

After graduation, Rita was hired by Belleville East High School in 1981. In 1985, she earned her Master’s Degree from SIU-E. Belleville East hired Rita to teach English and to be the head softball and head tennis coach.  She coached tennis for nine years and softball for 24 years. Forty years later, she is still involved in Lancer softball.

When Rita was first asked to coach softball, she had minimal experience playing or coaching the sport. During her time as head softball coach, her teams were consistently some of the best in the state. She holds an overall record of 609 wins and 174 losses. The Lancers won nine regional championships and ten Southwest Conference titles. Coach Menke led five teams to the IHSA State Tournament, placing fourth in 2004, and winning state championship titles in 1989, 1995, and 2003. This remains a Belleville East record for the most state team titles. Her 24 years of coaching helped approximately 75 players earn college softball scholarships, including 22 students who went on to play Division 1.

In 2002, she was inducted into the Illinois Softball Hall of Fame, and in 2018, she was inducted into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame, where she is currently serving as a committee member.  Belleville East followed that honor by naming its field after Rita that spring to commemorate her influence and legacy on the softball community. Generations of players will continue to learn the game on Rita Menke Field for years to come. Rita’s awards are not solely devoted to her athletic accomplishments. In 2019, the Belleville community recognized her with the Mary McHugh Citizen of Character Award. This award was particularly meaningful to Rita not only because Mary McHugh was a lifelong educator in Belleville but was also a Lancer softball parent and staunch supporter of the softball program.

Once Rita formally turned over her clipboard, she turned her attention to making the academics at Belleville East better. During her last seven years, Rita served as the English Department chair. She established a departmental tutoring program, which is still a foundation for services provided district-wide today. She led the district and department through new standards, new testing, and new technology. During Rita’s 33 years as a teacher, she taught students at all levels from freshman to senior year, to the differing abilities of title to honors. Rita also mentored multiple student teachers, new teachers, and even veteran teachers.

Rita’s legacy as a Lancer continues even eight years after her retirement. Since retiring from coaching in 2005, she continues to volunteer with the Belleville East Lancer softball team and for head coach Natalie Bennett-Peters. She also oversees the Jr. Lancer summer softball program (8u, 10u, 12u, 14u, and 18u teams), a softball program designed to help young girls develop skills and a love for the game while preparing them for high school sports.  For the last five years, she organized an annual golf tourney to raise money for the Jr. Lancers and the high school Lancer softball teams.   Also, she was an integral part of making improvements to the softball field, new locker room, and concession building.

Even today, she continues to serve as a Lancer.  From 2014-2020, she volunteered by helping prepare students at Whiteside Middle School for East. She helps organize and communicate events at Belleville East to retirees. She can often be seen helping in the English department, riding her bike around campus, working on the softball field, or attending East sporting events.  She epitomizes the slogan, “Once a Lancer, always a Lancer.”

When Rita is not volunteering in the softball community, she enjoys spending time golfing with her husband, Bob Brown. They have 23 nieces and nephews and eleven great nieces and nephews. However, Rita’s greatest joy is watching her two great nieces play the greatest sport, softball for the Jr Lancers.