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Friday, 27 January 2017 09:30

We'll remember Joe Schaefer for terrific stories, tireless service

Written by  Dave Bretl

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Walworth County lost its longest-serving supervisor earlier this month. Joe Schaefer’s seat, which he held since 1974, sat empty at our January meeting.

Schaefer passed away Jan. 11, ending a 43-year tenure, which was the longest in the history of our county. Schaefer was well known to many in the county for his board service and ownership of the Ye Olde Hotel in the town of Lyons. I had the privilege of knowing Schaefer since 1996 and working with him for 17 years.

It is impossible to do Schaefer’s life justice in the confines of this short column. I apologize in advance for omitting details of his life that would comprise the entire obituary for the majority of us. Schaefer served his country in Vietnam, his township on its fire department and, of course, the county through his many years of board service. While some of these details will, undoubtedly, fade in my memory over time, what I will never forget about Schaefer was his larger-than-life personality, the support he gave me over the years and, of course, his stories.

Schaefer was the best storyteller I ever heard. There were the hotel stories, the county board stories and his childhood stories about growing up in Lyons, which always seemed like a cross between episodes of “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Dukes of Hazard.” His many narratives were spiked with expressions and idioms that I would frequently have to Google to discern their complete meaning.

When he ran out of normal words, Schaefer had a language all his own.

Commenting on his own size, he would explain that he was raised when meat was cheap. Someone not blessed with particularly good looks was “no trip to Hollywood.” Schaefer credited his own good looks to his undertaker and often would remark that he wished he had taken better care of himself, considering how long he lived.

He preferred earning a slow nickel over a fast dime and warned about the dangers of “betting on the come.” Schaefer often would share his stories on Thursday mornings after our finance committee meetings, and when he did, he would invariably attract a crowd.

Nearly every session would end with someone saying, “Joe, you ought to write a book,” to which he would reply, “Yeah, but who’d believe it?” to which someone else would state the obvious: “You can’t make stuff like that up.”

Schaefer loved people. He shared the unvarnished details of his life and he could laugh at himself, which made us comfortable to be with him, to share our stories and to love him.

He had a spirit that was even larger than his size and that gravity drew people into his orbit like a planet attracts satellites. This gift made the hotel a kind of second county seat for many years.

On nights when no citizens appeared during the public comment period of our board meeting, Schaefer had a bar full of them waiting for him at the hotel.

They were more than willing to share their views about county government. Schaefer did not have a Facebook page and I do not believe he owned a computer, but in a small county, I would put the Ye Olde Hotel up against Twitter any day.

When we were dealing with a particularly contentious issue I would call him late on a Friday afternoon -- I am sure the worst time to call someone in the restaurant business -- and ask him what people were saying about next week’s meeting. Not only would he take the call, but our conversation took the form of a ceremony of sorts where he would quiet the bar crowd down because Mr. Bretl was on the phone.

He treated me with far more deference than I ever deserved and when he did offer advice, I would listen. If I was proposing something that didn’t work in 1975 or 1995, chances were it would not work in 2015. Board members, particularly new ones, often took their cue from Schaefer. If they were stuck on an issue, they reasoned that he probably knew something that they did not and they were right.

Beneath all of the quips and crazy anecdotes, Schaefer had a serious side that most often centered on providing for those who needed our help.

He was an unwavering and unapologetic supporter of our nursing home and our special needs school. Whenever it was pointed out to him that these were programs that counties do not have to run, he would not hear it. While he was frugal he knew that the generous people of his county would want us to find the money for these programs.

Schaefer never forgot the county board supervisors who, over the decades, made an impression on him because of their knowledge and leadership.

They were giants in his mind and he would recall their names with enthusiasm and reverence like a true New York Yankees fan can recite the “Murderers’ Row” batting order.

I only knew a few of them, but through his keen memory and talent for storytelling, he made them come to life again on Thursday mornings -- Dwyer, Kloppstein, Breidenbach and Burns, to name a few. He was proud to have been on their team.

Schaefer now joins that list as part of our county’s history and I have no doubt that his legacy will be preserved through stories; in fact, it already has started.

As I waited outside of the church after his funeral, two people approached me with stories of their own about Schaefer. They promised they would share them with me when we have more time, and I have no doubt that they will.

(Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator.)



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