John Schnabel's Eulogy
We sent John Schnabel off with the kind of party he would have liked on Saturday, with lots of people, lots of food, the Fishpickers band playing, and heartfelt tributes from family and friends. Tom Morphet, my editor at the Chilkat Valley News, played taps at the cemetery, and we wrote the newspaper's obituary together. For all the details of John's life, read that here. This is more personal, and I wrote it for me to speak, as well as for people who knew John well enough to be at his memorial in Haines--
How do you sum up the life of John Schnabel, a man the Chilkat Valley News called Haines’ most prominent citizen and, “A towering figure in the history of the town in the second half of the 20th century?” It’s not easy, as there were about as many Johns it seems as there are days of the week. Part of that is because he lived so long, and so vitally—he was 96 when he died March 18 in an Oakland nursing home recovering from surgery.
But part of it is also that John had a great capacity to change, and like the excellent card player he was, knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
John was a complex man; endearing and infuriating, fun loving and stern, tough and tender. He was a paradox, even to those closest to him.--John could be a tad intimidating, but when he smiled, which he did often, he lit up the room.
When Fred Shields ran for the Alaska Legislature in 1990 and John was suspect of his policies, he pulled Fred aside saying, “Shields, I’m going to sink your ship” and he did. By the time John died he and Fred were bridge partners and best of friends. “To live life you have to change,” Fred said. “John had a lot of life and lot of change.”
—And what a life it was; right of a John Steinbeck and Ken Kesey novel. John was a man of his times, and those times, and men like him are now the stuff of American history books.
“To understand John, you have to know his story,” his daughter Sandra, said. “Dad came from total poverty, but you look at those old photos and you see his smile. He was going to do something about that, and he did.”
John arrived in Haines in 1939 when he was nineteen-years-old with about thirty dollars in his pocket. He came in search of his father who had left home years earlier for Alaska, and now operated a small sawmill at Jones Point.
John went on to champion the Alaska timber industry for over four decades as a business leader in Haines building mills at Jones Point, in the woods, and his largest and final mill- Schnabel Lumber Co. on Lutak Inlet in 1967. Including stevedores, millhands, loggers and others, he employed as many as 120 local workers. He operated a hotel, lumberyard and hardware store, and built Main Street’s Gateway and Haisler buildings as well the Parts Place building. He became our town’s only captain of industry, and one of the valley’s largest landowners.
John Joseph Schnabel was born on his mother, Rosa Miller’s, drought stricken wheat farm on the high plains of Norton County, Kansas Feb. 11, 1920. His father Frank, a sawmiller from Pennsylvania was soon caught bootlegging, and the family left for California, Washington, and finally landed in Klamath Falls, Oregon. His parents separated when John was eleven, and his father headed to Alaska. John sold papers to buy bread for his mother and four siblings. His bedroom was an old rabbit hutch and the parish paid for his Catholic schooling, where he learned to play the violin and appreciate music. His sisters wore flour sack dresses.
John was in Haines by the time WW II broke out and joined the Navy air corps, serving as a bomber mechanic in the South Pacific. Years later, when a Haines history teacher asked John to share his WW II experiences, he agreed, but when he looked at the students he apologized, and walked out. He couldn’t speak of the horrors he’d witnessed as part of the crash recovery crew on an aircraft carrier and the runway at New Caledonia. He hated war and was a proud member of the Haines American Legion.
In 1950 he married Erma DiRe in Haines. She had a daughter from a previous marriage, and they soon added four more children- Debra, Sandra, Roger, and David. Erma’s sister Allie Cordes was one the Fort Seward pioneers and Marty Cordes worked for John.
John’s brother George joined him Haines, and went on to own the power company. George was as easy going as John was intense. They were very close, and when George died in 1993 John was visibly shaken. Something you didn’t see too often.
Here’s a story—their sister Margaret said that when John learned George was giving discounts to some of his customers, he asked why the mill, the biggest consumer of electricity, didn’t get one- George replied that it was only for people with residential electric hot water heaters. John bought one and installed it in a shed at the mill.
John was a skilled mechanic who could fabricate machinery from scraps and he didn’t hire engineers to build any of his mills, rather he sketched the designs on tissue paper. The day after John completed a major expansion of his father’s first mill at Jones Point, it burned down. Forced to start over, he took two small mills into the woods. Roger said the portable mills were where his father’s genius was, and they were his most successful.
In 1983 when The Schnabel Lumber Co. mill closed after he couldn’t meet a loan payment, John blamed environmentalists and new regulations, however history points to a host of issues that soon shuttered the other big mills in southeast; changing markets, higher logging costs, and lower quality timber. John told a local interviewer then, “You’ll probably find instances of cruelty in my life, but it’s the price you have to pay when you run a huge company. You have to try to consider the good of many people, rather than the cost to the few.”
Debra observed that her father’s life was like the Horatio Alger story, “He lived at a time when you could make yourself into something from nothing…He could build roads wherever he wanted, and cut whatever trees he wanted, and he did both-- much to many people’s dismay, ” she said. He re-routed a state highway by his mill, asking forgiveness rather than permission.
Despite his wealth John dressed in thrift-store clothing, drove old trucks and lived in a modest home. (And remember Erma’s car? Wasn’t it a Pinto with bathtub stickers on it?) John was proud to send his children to college, and be able to afford food and shelter, “Beyond that,” Roger said, “money was never a motivating factor for him.”
By age sixty-three John had survived childhood poverty, a broken home, war, the rise and fall of a business empire, and the tragedies of losing all five men in his mill management team in a small plane crash, an infant son’s crippling brain injury, and the untimely death of a daughter. He had bypass surgery following a heart attack when he was 68.
Debra said her father never gave up in mind or spirit and that all his life “his capabilities where extraordinary in terms of their breadth.”
“He always seemed so positive and upbeat. I never saw him discouraged,” said friend and former Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski.
John walked away from the forest products industry, developed other businesses and went placer mining at his Big Nugget mine outside of town --for fun-- mainly, with Erma and old friends, including fellow former mayor Frank Wallace, and eventually his grandsons. John stored his gold in baby food jars in an old safe, selling just enough to pay mine expenses.
Tod Sebens mined with the older, mellower John. He said John was patient, allowed him to make his own decisions, and when Tod was wrong, never said, “I told you so.” John did advise Tod not to retire. “John said, ‘All my friends who sat back in a rocking chair are dead. Keep working,’” Tod said.
John sometimes said he quit smoking at twenty, other times it was twelve—he did walk to the pool for his morning laps, and drank wheat grass juice tonics when wheat grass wasn’t cool. He had a great time building a golf course at Chilkat Lake, grew sweet cherries, and built a meditation trail with thoughtful sayings on the trees along the creek at his mine.
He also had a running feud with his colorful, one-legged neighbor, “Porcupine Jo” Jurgeleit, who shot at him every now and then, or at least in his general direction. One night on the way out the mine road, John spotted Jo’s pick-up crashed in a ravine. Another miner was on the scene and asked John and Erma to help, and to drive her to the clinic in town. John said later that he thought a long moment about leaving her there, “but that wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do.” They probably saved her life.
The school board asked John to serve on a vocational-ed task force, assuming he’d be an advocate, but he declined, saying anyone can learn how to drive a bulldozer, but some kids will only get one opportunity to study Shakespeare.
Anyone who was a guest for Sunday breakfasts with John and Erma back in the day knows what a good host he was. John invited his family, friends -- big wigs from out of town and a new fellow he met at the swimming pool and was curious about-- over for huge logger’s breakfasts cooked by Erma. He enjoyed discussing the news of the community-- political, social, and economic-- and spending the rest of the day playing bridge.
And what about that blue geodesic dome he built in his backyard for Debra? Remember that? Or his former floating logging camp scow, turned gallery, Noah’s Art, a fixture for years on the beach at Lutak?
Roger said his father was a good hunter. He never sat in a stand near his camp up the Chilkat River, instead he ran around in the woods. “He was of the sneak and peak school and always said you have to think like a moose,” Roger said.
Just before his eightieth birthday, John fell off the roof of his mining cabin while shoveling snow. He was alone at the time and drove himself 30 miles to the clinic with broken ribs and a cracked pelvis. He attended that birthday party at the Elks Lodge anyway—It was supposed to be his last big one and lieu of a wake—since he really wanted to be there (and no doubt HERE ) – He leaned on his crutches and sang “Sixteen Tons” with the band.
Turns out that John held “last” birthday parties for the next sixteen years. “My father loved parties,” Debra said. “Especially in his honor.”-- He would be so pleased to see you all here today—
John continued to win bridge games and write to politicians and newspapers well into his nineties. He typed memoirs and treatises on climate change and the origin of the galaxy (he mailed that one to Stephen Hawking, “Not for his approval, but to assist him,” Debra said). A life long Republican, his favorite book was David McCullough’s "Truman", about a Democratic president, and in the last year of his life he read romance novels to learn about love.
Senator Lisa Murkowski liked John. “He was so well informed on everything it was a delight to have a conversation with him,” she said. Her last image of John left an impression. They were at Haines Assisted Living and he was holding Erma’s hand. “After 66 years together, that moved me,” the Senior Senator from Alaska said.
John’s most public career—and the one made him famous-- began by accident when a television crew filming a show about an inept Oregon family’s attempt to strike it rich gold mining set up camp next door. John initially viewed the Hoffman’s through binoculars with skepticism.
“Gold Rush” producer Ed Gorsuch said when he met John he knew he’d found an authentic Alaskan character. “This TV thing was new to him, and he to it, but he was delighted by it. He loved the camera. He loved the fans. His experience, his wisdom, his demeanor were all we could want, then we met Parker and had a story…” Ed said. “We’d call him America’s Grandpa because he became that for all of us on the crew.”
Sandra said her father told her recently that he was grateful to his father for helping him make his dreams come true, and she realized that is also what John did for many people----
Like my husband and I, giving us an opportunity to own Lutak Lumber, thirty years ago. The life I have led, in this place I love, began with that gift from John. Of course we paid him back with interest, John was a businessman first. But he took the risk on us when we were young. He asked that in return we contribute to the community. He never told us how to vote on the City Council or the School Board though, and I know John disagreed with my views more then once… John, and Erma’s brother Paul Helmick, also established a trust for Boy Scouting programs in Haines.
In John’s memory, his family asks that you also provide an opportunity for someone, and that you become more involved your community.
Erma survives John at Mercy Retirement Home in Oakland, he also leaves daughters Debra of Haines and Sandra of Oakland; sons Roger of Haines and David who lives in a home for the mentally disabled in Pallatino IL; grandsons Payson of Las Vegas and Parker of Haines; sisters Margaret Lee and Mary Kaye of the Fort Worth area; nephew Jim Schnabel of Haines, another nephew Bob and and several other relatives from the lower forty-eight are here today as well. Daughter Patty and brothers George and James preceded John in death.
Finally, Nancy – his daughter-in-law—asks that if you remember one thing about John, it’s this--“The person that John was on “Gold Rush” was the person he was the last six years of his life. He wasn’t John that ran the sawmill. He was not the same as he was in younger years. The lesson he taught us,” Nancy said, “is don’t wait until the last ten years of your life to be with your family, and the people you love.”
The TV show gave John his third and final act—and most people are lucky to get two—and while we know it’s not 100% real— the cameras did capture the love “Grandpa John” had for his grandsons—when he saw them and smiled that winning Schnabel smile and called their names with open arms— that was true— John really loved Parker and Payson, and they really loved him back.
April 2, 2016 Haines, AK., written and spoken by Heather Lende, author of Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-town Obituary Writer.