I was born in Danforth, Illinois to Herman William (Happy) Schriefer and Olive Emma Frey Schriefer and died at the age of 92 on May 22, 2021. A visitation on Thursday, June 10, from 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM will be held at the Immanuel Lutheran Church, Danville, IL and a memorial service to follow at 5:00 PM with Pastor Callahan officiating. I was the third of eight children with three brothers and four sisters. We were a close-knit family, gathering for reunions and other occasions throughout our lives.
The Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed left my family with a problem that plagued millions of Americans in those days: Food. In spite of well stocked grocery stores, we simply didn’t have enough money to spend in order to meet our basic eating needs. A large garden in the summer allowed for careful planning to can enough of its harvest for the winter. Combined with a cow for milk and some chickens for eggs, we were able to get by well enough. Along with fishing, we hunted rabbits, pheasants, and quail. On more than one occasion, my mother instructed my brother Don and me that, if we wanted supper, we’d better go out and catch it. Of course, we would always take her advice literally and do just that!
My education started in a one room school house with fewer than thirty students. My siblings and I typically walked the four miles round trip to and from our home and Legettville Elementary (near Chebanse, Illinois). Although I regretted the fact that we had no organized sports program, I felt the one room environment provided a great benefit as I was able to get a leg up on future studies by listening to what the higher grades were learning. The smallness of the overall educational environment also permitted me to form close bonds with many of my classmates.
I particularly recall one cold January day when some men, as part of a WPA program, were digging a ditch near the school. At mid-day, they came into the building to warm up and eat their lunches alongside the rest of us kids. My father was a part of that work crew. I remember feeling very proud of him on that day. In fact, both my parents made powerful impressions on me regarding the importance of hard work. I was grateful for having received that ethic from them. Even still, the times were what they were, a reality that lent itself to a certain amount of mobility for many families. We eventually had to move from my first childhood home; therefore, I left Legettville Elementary and briefly attended Collinsville Elementary (which was also near Chebanse). When I was a fifth grader, we moved again, this time to Herscher, Illinois, where I finished my education.
Herscher opened up a whole new world of opportunity to me. For starters, it was the first time I lived in a home with running water and electricity. High school provided me with so many chances to thrive. Competing in both the Kankakee Valley and Vermillion Valley conferences, I lettered for three years in football, three years in track and four years in basketball. In addition to sports, I was able to have the lead role in the school play and serve as senior class president. One day per year, Herscher High School observed a tradition where teachers stayed home and the senior class taught courses. I was honored to be selected as ‘acting principal’ for that day! Needless to say, my family’s move to Herscher was a critically valuable life shift for me.
My older brother Don served in Europe at the end of World War II and, although I was tempted by the prospect of playing basketball in college, his influence, along with our larger family ethic of not taking freedom for granted, provided the foundation for my choosing the U.S. Army after graduation. Eventually, following in Don’s footsteps, I, along with my brother Harold and my brother Gordon, would also be deployed in a foreign war, the three of us serving in Korea.
I enlisted on June 24, 1948. The mild degree of mobility during my childhood was nothing compared to how military life kept me on the move. Basic training took me to Fort Knox, Kentucky. From there, I went to Fort Holibird in Baltimore, Maryland. Then it was off to Camp Lee in Virginia (where I was able to participate in the facility’s official transition to becoming Fort Lee, a process I was able to experience a second time when Camp Carson in Colorado became Fort Carson). My military experiences also took me to places like Camp Stoneman in California; Camp Drake in Japan; Fort Lewis in Washington; Fort Custer in Michigan; Camp Atterbury in Indiana; Camp McCoy in Wisconsin; and Camp Desert Rock in Nevada.
I was fortunate enough to extend my athletic career while in the military. Our Army basketball team competed across a wide spectrum. I once scored 22 points in a game against Johns Hopkins University. On another occasion, I scored 38 points against Bolling Field in Washington D.C. I was also a windmill pitcher on the Army’s fast pitch softball team and was, for a period of time, one of the top rated players at that position on the east coast. I even had the opportunity to pitch against Jim Thorpe’s son, Carl, in a game at Carlisle
I retired as an athlete around the same time President Truman extended my three year enlistment for an additional twelve months. My brother Don was pursuing his education at the University of Illinois on the GI Bill. He was also a key member of their track team. Most importantly, he and his wife Sue were expecting their first child. The money I’d saved in a soldier’s deposit program could only be taken out if I happened to be discharged. I was in line to be stationed in Germany, but wanted to serve in Korea. I also wanted to help my brother. The solution was simple enough: I took a short discharge, helped out my brother and his young family with my now accessible savings, re-enlisted for three more years, and volunteered to go to Korea. The Army was happy to give me my wish!
In getting to Korea, I spent a total of 42 days on four different troop ships. The experience was extremely valuable, but it was also character building. We could only communicate home via letters. The food was repetitive and of questionable quality, mostly C-rations. Nonetheless, those C-rations were my meal routine for the better part of a full year, extending well past my time on those troop ships.
It was certainly an honor to defend my country, but, as one would expect, the conditions of war were challenging. We lived in tents, bunkers, or simply outside. Chilling temperatures were normal (I recall one morning when it was 38 below zero). But we kept an eye on and protected one another like any band of brothers would. Of course, having volunteered, I hardly felt I could complain. Through focus, discipline, and the good graces of those who looked out for me, my circumstances were auspicious enough for me to have received the Korean Service Medal, three Bronze Battle Stars, the United Nations Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and the National Defense Medal. My highest rank was Sergeant First Class.
As hostilities in Korea drew to a close, my military career took me to Camp Atterbury, Indiana and then Camp McCoy, Wisconsin (where I attended the Chemical, Biological-Radiological Warfare School). I then returned to Camp Atterbury and was informed that I was being sent to Camp Desert Rock, Nevada for eight days of training and orientation which would precede a test where we would all witness the first (and only) firing of an atomic canon, a weapon designed to deliver a nuclear warhead with a payload similar to what was used on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II. It’s difficult to describe the test itself. Words have a hard a time providing an understanding of what it’s like to be in five foot deep trenches along with 3,000 other men, sitting two and a half miles down range from the detonation of a 400 pound projectile traveling approximately one mile per second. When the explosion happened at 8:30 AM sharp on May 25, 1953, the subsequent mushroom cloud was nearly three miles wide and the heat signature produced comparable to what happens on the surface of the sun. This unimaginable detonation kicked up a massive dust storm that temporarily blinded all of us as we struggled to breathe through our gas masks while enduring a wave of almost instantly spiked temperatures that swept through the area. Most of us were troops having just returned from Korea. We thought we had all the scary stuff behind us. Such was not the case. That day was, on the one hand, one of the most amazing experiences of my life; however, on the other hand, it was also one of the scariest experiences of my life. The entire operation was classified top secret until the 1990s. Now you can look it up under words ‘Atomic Annie.’ I’m proud to be among a small group of former military personnel considered ‘Atomic Veterans.’
After being discharged from the Army on June 24, 1954, I briefly worked at a lumber yard, a factory, and the Iroquois Service Company in Watseka, Illinois (where I had the opportunity to play on the company state championship fast pitch softball team). I then enrolled at the University of Illinois for a year but ultimately left to accept a job at the University of Illinois which marked the beginning of a 36 year career where I worked my way through five promotions, eventually becoming Superintendent of Building Services. Under my direction, there were eight supervisors, thirteen foremen, and 187 total employees within the custodial department. The University of Illinois encouraged us to take continuing education classes so I did, receiving a variety of certificates along the way. I always enjoyed learning and the practice of being a student for life.
One of my proudest career achievements was the creation of an organization called the Association of College and University Building Service Supervisors (ACUBSS). The purpose of ACUBSS is to advance the highest standards of professional management, modern methods, and educational programs in the institutional custodial care industry. ACUBSS also aims to provide its members with a forum for the exchange of information and ideas to help better serve their respective institutions. It has evolved and grown tremendously over the years and now includes members from colleges, universities, public schools, hospitals, and various other vendors found across the United States. The backstory on the formation of ACUBSS started in December of 1979 when we were preparing for 17,000 inter-varsity Christian Fellowship attendees to be at a conference on the U of I campus. 13,000 of these participants were slated to stay in campus residence halls beginning on December 26th. On Christmas Eve morning we discovered that 3,500 sets of linen had been taken for use in off campus housing and were not retrievable. We desperately called military bases and other universities. Eventually, we were able to get what we needed, but, as Superintendent of Building Services, I was obviously concerned by the prospect of something similar happening in the future. I also determined that people in our industry needed a way to exchange work related methods and ideas. Learning from the events of December of 1979, ACUBSS was born. I was most recently honored to be the keynote speaker at the organization’s 2017 conference.
When I was thirty-five years old I decided that I wanted to be a long distance runner and so, for the next forty years, long distance running was what I did. I often got the chance to combine this exercise hobby with my love of travel. I did a sixteen day running tour of Europe, ran on the Great Wall of China, and also ran on Moscow’s Red Square. Here in the United States, I ran on every road in Champaign County as well as the first thirty Steamboat Classic road races in Peoria (and did the walking version of this same event after knee replacement surgery ended my running career in 2003 at the age of 75). I was inducted into the Peoria Journal Star’s Steamboat Classic Hall of Fame in 2008. I was also honored to run with fifty-three members of the U.S. Marine Corps in a fundraising effort for POW/MIA’s. We ran from Champaign to Springfield and raised 4,400 dollars for the cause. A few days later, my new Marine running friends invited me to Chanute Field in Rantoul for a group picture. To my surprise, they went into military formation and recognized me as an Honorary Marine Sergeant, completing the wonderful gesture by giving me a plaque commemorating the day. In addition to all I just mentioned, running allowed me to participate in 363 road races. Being a part of the local running scene also allowed me to connect with the track and field community in Champaign, an endeavor that led to me becoming a certified NCAA Track and Field official, thus allowing me to serve in the role of ‘head curve inspector’ for two NCAA Track and Field Championship meets as well as one U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials meet. Perhaps one of the most unexpected results of my life as a runner was connecting to certain individuals in our prison system through a combination of prison ministry and running. I’m thankful for the forty years I was able to be a runner. I’m even more thankful for the life experiences running gave me.
I retired to a small town called Alvin, Illinois where I had a twenty-two acre property with a home; a pond; a hay field; a pasture; and a separate building where I kept various running, military, and travel memorabilia. The community of Alvin was good to me, and I tried to return the favor. I worked with local officials to repair the old Gaumer Bridge after it was destroyed by a flood. I was honored that the community thought well enough of my efforts to rename the new version of this structure the ‘Gaumer-Schriefer Bridge.’ I believed strongly in staying aware and active with respect to politics and current events. I even maintained a bit of advocacy for considering the possibility of splitting the state of Illinois into two separate states!
I was preceded in death by my parents, Happy and Olive; four sisters Mardell (Nick) Regas, Dorothy Crawford, Louella (Ray) Duchene and Olive Rae Talkington; two brothers Don and Harold Schriefer; and my wonderful son Mel. The last of these losses marked one of the truly sad points in my life. Mel, Jr. was a good person who would give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it. He was a proud Navy veteran. His funeral was on what would have been his 35th birthday. Losing a child is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.
I am survived by my brother, Gordon (Judy) Schriefer; sisters-in-law Susan Schriefer and Amelia Hackl Schriefer; brother-in-law Bill Talkington. In my immediate family, I’m survived by three sons Jack, Jeff (Paulette), and Eric (Tina) Schriefer and three daughters, Bobbi (Tony) Dodd, Elizabeth (Jeff) Schleef, and Mary Beth (John) Jacobson. I’m also survived by eleven grandchildren and eight great grandchildren (One of my great grandchildren, Blayne Worthy, sadly passed away several years ago).
I was always thankful to my children for the help they gave me regarding medical issues and other aspects of my life. It warmed my heart to know that they are all doing well in their careers and with their respective families. I had great kids. I was particularly thankful for the joy of having had Sunja Yu in my life. She was a wonderful companion for the past thirty years and enhanced the last era of my life in a way that left me fulfilled, content, and happy. May God bless, Sunja Yu.
In looking back, I realized that whatever wisdom I was able to acquire was a product of the thousands of people I was fortunate to encounter. They motivated me to achieve more than I ever dreamed as a young boy weighing the seemingly limited options provided by the Great Depression era. I was humbled and extremely grateful for all of it.
I look forward to seeing everyone on the other side where it’s all in God’s hands.
In the meantime, take care and be well.
~SFC Melvin Schriefer
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1930 N Bowman Ave, Danville, IL 61832.