The Sedalia community lost one of its best storytellers this week.
Democrat reporter Hope Lecchi died Thursday morning at her home in Smithton at the age of 56.
Journalism was a second career for Lecchi, who spent decades teaching English and history in the Smithton School District. She joined the Democrat staff as an education reporter in 2014, and although she’d be the first to admit she had a learning curve to overcome, she quickly became an integral part of the Democrat newsroom. She willingly added numerous beats to her education coverage, becoming the primary reporter for agriculture and county government.
She offered only a few quirky complaints about reporting on lengthy school board meetings or mundane topics every reporter has to endure, but she especially loved telling stories about area children and their accomplishments. Few things made her smile more than going through the cute kid photos she took at an elementary school. She was proud of student organizations like JROTC and Team SCREAM for their honors in the past few years and was eager to share their results.
"We at Sedalia School District 200 are heartbroken over the loss of Hope Lecchi, who covered the stories of our students, staff members and board with great professionalism and fairness,” Sedalia 200 Superintendent Steve Triplett said via email. “As a former educator, she understood the day-to-day challenges of public education. She put her whole heart into stories about our students' achievements. Our sincere condolences to her family and to her friends at the Democrat."
Lecchi’s former teaching career frequently intertwined with her more recent journalism career. She often ran into former students or parents of former students while on assignment and always made it a point to check in with them. Many of her former students and coworkers became sources on her education beat, such as Brad Pollitt, her former boss when he was a principal in the Smithton School District, who became superintendent in the Sedalia School District 200. She was there to report on his announcement a few years ago that he was running for his current role in the Missouri House of Representatives.
He said she “cared so much about her students, their successes, what they did after they graduated.”
Lecchi helped Matt Boatright with his campaign when he served in the state legislature and later talked to Pollitt about running for public office after leaving Sedalia 200. Pollitt said that when he decided to run, Lecchi may have been more excited than he was. The two friends often stayed in contact via text, with Hope checking in on how Pollitt was doing.
“She said she prayed for my family every night, that means a lot,” Pollitt told the Democrat by phone. “She tried to be a fair journalist and get both sides of a story and that’s important, especially in today’s world.”
Lecchi also was the one to report when Sam Jones, a former colleague who she mentored in his early teaching career in Smithton, was named Dean of Students at Sacred Heart School.
“Sacred Heart Schools is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of a true literary giant,” Jones said via email. “Hope Lecchi spent her life unlocking the mysteries of the written word for countless generations. One of Hope’s greatest joys was teaching young minds “The Great Gatsby.” Hope had the unique gift of teaching Gatsby to her students with a passion of someone who had just finished reading it, all while holding the secrets to the deepest mysteries of life on the East Egg. While this community will grieve for the loss of a beautiful soul, Hope will live on in the knowledge she gave to thousands of students.”
Lecchi increased the Democrat’s county government coverage in the last few years, adding the weekly Commission Update to keep readers informed. Pettis County Presiding Commissioner David Dick said the commission’s assistant, Kristen Anderson — another of Lecchi’s former students — sent the update information to Lecchi each week, but Dick would still receive texts or phone calls with follow-up questions.
“She always had a thousand questions. She was about the details to make sure people understood,” Dick said.
He got those same text and email strings tenfold during the Missouri State Fair, where Dick serves as Livestock Superintendent. He said Lecchi had a good sense of what people wanted to read, all while finding all the details.
“All my superintendents had interactions with her and they all knew she was a stickler for the details so they were always prepared for that,” Dick added. “They knew they wouldn’t get away with a one-line answer.”
Even though she focused on education, Lecchi wrote countless feature stories and profiles of people in the community who might not otherwise have their stories told.
“I think her impact was huge because she always had an eye for the story that’s always there but doesn’t get told,” Dick said. “And that there were a lot of stories in places people didn’t look, and they were interesting. She was always able to tell them. What she wrote for Ron (Ditzfeld, who died earlier this week) was so excellently written.”
Lecchi received numerous awards for her reporting during her time at the Democrat from the Missouri Press Association, KC Press Club and Missouri State Teachers Association. She also received the News Media Award from the Missouri Community College Association annual awards in 2016 for her “comprehensive coverage of SFCC news and human interest articles about college programs and staff.”
However, Lecchi wasn’t big on recognition and accolades. She preferred the thank you emails and cards she received from readers over the plaques and certificates piled on her messy desk.
“Even though I started at the Democrat before she did, it’s now hard to imagine the newsroom without her. She always had a long list of story ideas and offered to help whenever she could,” Democrat Editor Nicole Cooke said. “Hope was more than a coworker, she was a friend to everyone in the office. She was always willing to lend an ear when someone needed to talk, worked harder than most people I know despite her health struggles, and always tried to learn more about her job every day. She’s leaving a hole in the newsroom that will be hard to fill.”
Arrangements are pending at Heckart Funeral Home in Sedalia.