Brownstown native receives Sagamore award

Advocating for pro-life issues, Susan Prentice Swayze Liebel worked closely with former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his staff.

The efforts of the Brownstown native, who now lives in Indianapolis, recently were acknowledged by being presented the state’s highest honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash award.

The award is a personal tribute usually given to those who have rendered a distinguished service to the state or to the governor. Among the recipients over the years are astronauts, presidents, ambassadors, artists, musicians, politicians and ordinary citizens.

Liebel has worked for more than 25 years in policy development, program design and implementation, lobbying and political strategy. She currently works two part-time jobs — vice president of public affairs for Indiana Right to Life and coordinator of the National Pro-Life Women’s Caucus for the Susan B. Anthony List.

“I was truly speechless and very humbled to receive this honor. It was very special, and I really will cherish it,” Liebel said. “I also pledge to continue to work even harder to help women and unborn Hoosier babies, to save more Hoosier babies from the pain of abortion and also their mothers from the pain after an abortion.

“The abortion rate in Indiana is down over 25 percent. Health and safety standards at clinics are better. We’ve done a lot of good work together getting women more information about the pros and cons and the impacts of abortions,” she said. “It has been a privilege to work with the governor and his team.”

She, however, said she doesn’t do the work for the recognition.

“In fact, sometimes, being pro-life is not very well-respected. It is difficult work, and it’s not always appreciated,” she said. “To be honored for it and to work along with such a great man and his great team was such a privilege. Mike Pence is a great guy in addition to being a champion for women and their unborn babies.”

Liebel grew up in Brownstown, attending Seymour schools until eighth grade and graduating from Brownstown Central High School in 1978.

She then went to Indiana University, earning a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1982 and a master’s degree in planning and management in 1984.

She has lived and worked in Indianapolis since 1981.

Her first job out of college was with the United Way of Central Indiana, where she helped fund a variety of agencies. During that time, she also taught social work classes at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis as a guest faculty member.

One day, she was at the Statehouse when a potential law about social services was being discussed. She testified on the bill, and the United Way wound up hiring her to be a lobbyist.

“I went back to the Statehouse, and the bill kept moving through the process, and our bill passed,” she said. “It’s pretty fun when your very first bill passes. It’s not easy at all. Most bills do not pass.”

She was active in such issues as child abuse, senior citizen services and welfare reform. She also founded the Children’s Coalition of Indiana, a statewide children’s advocacy group that played a key role in the creation of Indiana’s Kids First license plate.

“I never saw it coming,” she said of becoming a lobbyist. “I just fell into it, and that’s actually how most lobbyists do. There is no school or training or class on how to do it. I loved it, and I wanted to do more, and that person that was a United Way lobbyist took a chance on me.”

After 13 years with the United Way, she went to work for the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce lobbying for business-related issues. She worked with local and state officials to advocate for business-friendly regulations and legislation on tax and fiscal issues, infrastructure, environmental and local and government consolidation.

During her 10 years with the chamber, she also staffed its political action committee and was the first executive director for the Indiana Christian Chamber of Commerce.

She then left the secular type of lobbying and went into lobbying for religious or “socially conservative” issues with the Indiana Family Institute and Indiana Right to Life.

In her eight years with the Indiana Family Institute, she ran the Hoosier Congressional Policy Leadership Series, a leadership program that trains conservatives for community service and policy leadership initiatives. She also coordinated its initiative to provide marriage and relationship enhancement programs, for which she also is a certified facilitator, primarily in jails and prisons.

In her role with Indiana Right to Life, Liebel assists in developing public policy and development strategies and serves as its primary lobbyist and media spokesperson on issues of human life.

When she took on her role with the Susan B. Anthony List in Washington, D.C., that allowed her to take her work outside Indiana’s border.

She is responsible for implementing the program’s mission of advancing women lawmakers who are dedicated to ending abortion by passing laws that save lives. That involves expanding the caucus’ membership of state elected women across the country and equipping them with policy, legal and communications tools.

“Just in the last 2½ years, it has really expanded my territory,” Liebel said. “I am still based in Indiana and still primarily lobby in Indiana. I can still stay active in the state and still lobby while I also advise another state.”

Liebel also still volunteers teaching healthy relationship classes in the Indiana Women’s Prison. She said it’s her passion to help women who have had a rough time in their life because of the choices they have made.

“I have a real heart for those women,” she said. “I enjoy trying to stand up for them for things, whether it’s pro-life or a healthy or violence-free relationship without drugs and alcohol. That’s what I’m really committed to, and that’s what I’ll do the rest of my life if the good Lord lets me.”

While she has accomplished a lot in her various jobs and considers the Sagamore of the Wabash a great honor, Liebel said her biggest achievement is advocating for women.

“I believe that abortion takes a life. Abortion is the killing of an unborn baby in the womb,” she said. “Since I believe that is killing a baby, I believe the most important work I’ve done and I do every day is to try to save as many babies from the injustice of abortion as possible.

“On the flip side of that, I also believe in my work to help women who suffer from the memories and the after-effects of abortion, to help women make better choices, choose not to be in poor relationships, things like that, things that go with that a lot of times,” she said. “A lot of pain and regret goes with that, and my heart breaks for those women, as well.”

At a glance

The Sagamore of the Wabash award was created during the term of Indiana Gov. Ralph Gates, who served from 1945 to 1949.

Gates was to attend a tri-state meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, with state officials from Ohio and Kentucky. His aides discovered the governor of Kentucky was preparing Kentucky Colonel certificates for him and Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft. The Hoosiers decided that Indiana should have an appropriate award to present in return.

The term “sagamore” was used by the Native American tribes of the northeastern United States to describe a lesser chief or a great man among the tribe to whom the true chief would look for wisdom and advice.

Each governor since Gates has presented the certificates in their own way. It has been said that one governor even resorted to wearing full Native American headdress as he read the scrolls.

The award is the highest honor that the governor of Indiana bestows. It is a personal tribute usually given to those who have rendered a distinguished service to the state or to the governor.

Among the recipients have been astronauts, presidents, ambassadors, artists, musicians, politicians and ordinary citizens who have contributed greatly to the Hoosier heritage.

Awards have been conferred upon both men and women. There is no record of the total number that have been presented, as each governor has kept his own roll, just as each has reserved the right to personally select the recipients.

Liebel file

Name: Susan Prentice Swayze Liebel

Age: 56

Hometown: Brownstown

Residence: Indianapolis

Education: Brownstown Central High School (1978); Indiana University (bachelor’s degree in social work, 1982; master’s degree in planning and management, 1984)

Occupations: Vice president of public affairs for Indiana Right to Life and coordinator of the National Pro-Life Women’s Caucus for the Susan B. Anthony List

Family: Husband, Dave Liebel; daughter, Laura McCaffrey of Indianapolis; brothers, Jim Prentice of Seymour and John Prentice of Indianapolis

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.