Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania, Sue Yenchko

Sue Yenchko was at a civic event in 1996 when she overheard five young men griping about life in Harrisburg. She invited them to lunch and told a story – the story of how her father helped revive her hometown’s devastated economy.

“They were saying, ‘We hate this area. There’s nothing for our wives to do,’” she recalls. “They just didn’t have the vision, and I had seen it before.”

That was the beginning of Harrisburg Young Professionals.

“They were saying, ‘We hate this area. There’s nothing for our wives to do,’” she recalls.

This fall, Gov. Tom Corbett and first lady Susan Corbett named Yenchko as a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania for her civic and public service contributions, through a career in government affairs that included AMP, the state Chamber of Commerce and Pennsylvania American Water. She was nominated by HYP and her alma mater, Susquehanna University, where a visiting writers’ program is named after her.

“I’ve never wanted work that did not present a challenge,” Yenchko says as she muses on a life in civic involvement, from her Lemoyne home overlooking the Market Street Bridge, City Island and the skyline of the city she helped to shape.

Where did you get your civic spirit?

I am a Hazleton girl. My grandfather was a coal miner. We had a huge family – Yenchko Brothers Plumbing and Heating. It was a hard-luck area, but people made the most that they absolutely could of that. Dad was a volunteer with the Jaycees and heavily involved in the chamber of commerce. In the mid-1950s, Hurricane Diane sat over Hazleton for three or four days. It flooded the deep mines. Overnight, the economy was lost.

My dad joined a small group of young men with young families who said, “Hazleton is going to dry up and disappear if we don’t do something to attract other industries to employ people.” They formed a nonprofit economic development organization called CAN DO. It took them a couple weeks to figure out what the initials should stand for. I like that part of the story. It stood for Community Area New Development Organization.

They asked every family in town to donate a dime a week, and they bought scrap coal lands. They donated time. They cleared the land. They built a spec building and then went after businesses to begin diversifying the economy. Dad knew that the future of Hazleton could be lost or gained by how those men went after getting everyone in the community to contribute.

Is that what gave you the idea for HYP?

But you didn’t even know them.That was the story that I told the five guys, and that was the beginning of HYP. I said here’s a city that’s already here. It has a diversified base, but what’s going on now is brain drain. People grow up and get their start here, but there’s nothing here that’s challenging, and there’s no real social group. The power structure is much older, not very many minorities. It’s like the old establishment. I said, “You guys are the new establishment and don’t even know it.”

No, but I told them the story of the seven or so people in Hazleton who said, “If we don’t do something about it, who will?” They asked how that worked. They said we’re nobody. I said let’s meet again in two weeks, and everybody bring another person with you. In four weeks, we had the restaurant filled with young people saying it’d be great to be part of something that’s ours.

They now have 1,200 dues-paying members. They started sports teams a couple years ago because some played sports in college and now have nothing to do. They have a good 30-member board of directors. They invited me to one of their last meetings. They call me the godmother. They said, ‘Tell us the story of the beginning of HYP again.”

How does a new organization survive?

One of the things Dad said was, “If you work with volunteers, you don’t stand there and say, ‘Take my picture.’ You put your volunteers up, and you take their picture.” I said that wasn’t fair. You do all the background work. But his point was very well taken. People volunteer their time if they feel somebody appreciates it. For HYP to succeed, it wasn’t just a few people to make that happen and take all the credit.

What’s been your role with HYP since then?

I was already over 40 when HYP started.

Yeah, we need a Harrisburg Old Professionals.

That’s right. HOPS. Maybe we will have to do that.

Not long after, I started a job with Pennsylvania American Water. That job was 24/7. I was donating what little time I had to the Lemoyne streetscape project. I’m on the HYP board of advisors, but frankly, HYP was doing just fine. They had spinoffs in different communities, and it was becoming brain gain. A number of the high-tech businesses around here have relationships with HYP. They encourage new hires to get involved because it’s an instant peer group.

That’s how businesses say they compete for talent – with quality of life.

Absolutely. I get HYP’s Bits and Bytes newsletter. I look at everything they’re doing. It just pleases me. “Dinner and a movie with Frank.” I have no idea who Frank is, but there’s one person who said he’d do some cultural thing. That entrepreneurial thing is happening.

How did you get involved in Lemoyne streetscaping?

A whole bunch of people volunteered. We did visioning. We had plans. We worked with Kairos Design group, which is wonderful. It’s a small group of landscape architects. They donated so much of their time, and it was like Hazleton all over again. There is a lot we can all do. There’s a wonderful spirit in Lemoyne.

What has been the impact of HYP?

The outflow of young people from a state can be devastating. HYP has become a magnet and a reason to stay here. Now there are Carlisle, York, Lancaster, Erie Young Professionals. There’s a Pennsylvania Young Professionals. It’s a model for how to keep people connected to each other, by having something in common that you want to do and accomplish. I love that they are working to improve the quality of life in Harrisburg, and in the other cities.

What does being named a Distinguished Daughter say about your legacy?

I knew about Distinguished Daughters, but I didn’t think I was of the right caliber. Violet Oakley was a Distinguished Daughter. Come on. Mamie Eisenhower. Pearl Buck. These are wonderful women. They reached fame and fortune. I haven’t done that. I’m not done yet.