A Life Remembered: Veteran lived motto of 'Don't waste today'

A Life Remembered: Veteran lived motto of 'Don't waste today'

ROSSVILLE — On the wall of Tracy Wahlfeldt's office at the Danville Area Community College Foundation is a framed quote about seizing the day, given to her by Richard Schlecht.

"It was something he lived by. ... That truly defined Richard Schlecht. 'Don't waste today,' " said Wahlfeldt, executive director of the college foundation, recounting this week how the 101-year-old Rossville businessman, outdoorsman, philanthropist and World War II veteran lived life to its fullest.

"If you had a conversation with Mr. Schlecht, you came away learning. He was so well read. He continued to learn, he knew world news, research, agriculture. He was sharp all through his years. It was just amazing when you talked to him that he was 101 years old. He still was pretty active. He came to our donor recognition dinner in June. He still lived on his own. He was just a remarkable man."

Just three months shy of his 102nd birthday, Mr. Schlecht died "peacefully in his sleep at home" on Saturday morning, according to his obituary.

A celebration of life memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Danville Country Club, 2718 Denmark Road, Danville.

Born in Hoopeston in 1915, Mr. Schlecht's family moved to Rossville in his elementary years, and after graduating from Rossville High School, Mr. Schlecht put himself through college at Northwestern University, working, obtaining scholarships and joining the Navy ROTC. He graduated from its commerce school in 1938, and after six months of fulfilling his NROTC requirement, he returned to Rossville and began work in a cannery, started by his father.

But in 1940, he voluntarily joined the Navy.

"I think he saw the Navy as sort of exciting and a chance to see the world," said his oldest son, Steve Schlecht, one of four kids Richard and his late wife, Mary, raised in Rossville in their 66 years of marriage.

Mr. Schlecht served on the destroyer USS O'Brien DD415 before Pearl Harbor, and after Dec. 7, 1941, his war service covered the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He survived the sinking of the O'Brien in 1942, following damage from a Japanese submarine torpedo, and went on to serve on USS Nields. He left the Navy in March 1946 as a lieutenant commander at the age of 29, a high rank for someone his age, according to Steve Schlecht, who explained that the war experience and growing up in the Depression made his father who he was.

"I think that shaped his character quite a bit," Steve Schlecht said.

His character, from those who knew him best, was unique.

In his 80s, he climbed a 14,000-foot peak in Switzerland, and in his 90s, he swam in the Arctic Ocean on a trip to the North Pole with his son, David. Also in his 90s, he continued to garden and take his annual fishing trip to Canada with close friends and family. He had a lifelong love of travel, the outdoors and music, could play multiple instruments like the saxophone, harmonica and jew's-harp, and could spontaneously break into song, or Shakespeare.

"He could quote Shakespeare like you would not believe, up to his death," said his daughter, Liz Murrill of Wilmette, who explained that her father had an amazing memory until the end. She said he kept a journal up until the night he died and had all sorts of sayings he shared often with his children and others.

"It's a huge loss. We are very blessed, and he's left quite a legacy for all the generations to come," she said, describing her father's love of life and passion to live it to the fullest. "He appreciated mankind so much, all kinds of people, and I think somehow his personality just drew people to him. There was a big modesty about dad."

At his 100th birthday party, guests were asked to write one word on their name tag describing him.

Murrill said several words appeared over and over — gentleman, hard-working, dynamic, strong, determined, steadfast, handsome, memorable and optimist.

Other words require some explanation or a story, like "onward" — one of his favorite optimism-enducing sayings that was on his license plates for years — and "precise."

Education was very important to her dad, Murrill explained, as was proper English, which is where "precise" comes in.

"He was always correcting us to the very end (on English)," she said.

Steve Schlecht said five themes stand out in his dad's nearly 102 years.

First, he was a man of character, a leader who could mobilize people. But, Murrill said, a very modest leader who did not like the limelight. Second, Steve Schlecht said his father was very community oriented, and third, he was very family oriented with high expectations for his children.

"As the oldest son, I thought he was pretty strict," Steve Schlecht said.

Fourth, he was a successful business man and farmer who was always learning and improving the operation, keeping up on new technology and methods out of the UI, Steve said.

And fifth, their mom and dad were a team with a very strong bond through 66 years of marriage.

"His partner in life was our mom," Murrill said.

John Hecker, of Champaign, grew up around Mr. Schlecht and recalls his preciseness. His father, Morris Hecker, 95, of Champaign, was one of Mr. Schlecht's closest friends for decades — meeting through their wives — and accompanied him on his annual fishing trip to Canada, a tradition for 60 years. On their way north, they would pick up another of Mr. Schlecht's long-time friends from his Northwestern days, Dick Breeden.

John Hecker, who went on the trips too, said Mr. Schlecht always drove the full-two-day journey to Canada and would type out a travel schedule with specific pickup times, like 6 minutes past the hour.

"And let me tell you, he was spot on," he said with a laugh. "He was every enjoyable, very intelligent, very fair. He just had a very pleasant way about him."

After the war, Mr. Schlecht came back to Rossville and joined in the family vegetable cannery business, Rossville Packing Co., which also involved grain and livestock farming. He became president and sole owner of the company in 1964, and sold the business in 1979, and focused solely on the farming operation.

He was active in many Rossville and Danville community organizations — school board, fire district, 4-H leader, member of the former Lakeview Hospital board and the foundation boards of then-Danville Junior College and the Danville Symphony board.

Wahlfeldt said the Schlecht family has always been very generous to DACC, and Richard Schlecht led that charge, establishing a scholarship when his brother died as well as one in his and his wife's names. In keeping with their love of music, the couple also donated a grand piano for the DACC theater.

James Mason, retired Danville physician and close friend of Mr. Schlecht (their fathers were friends in Rossville), said his friend was a major supporter of education, giving to Northwestern, his wife's alma mater, the UI, as well DACC.

"I hate to lose him. I had so much respect for him. He was the ideal of the great generation that (Tom) Brokaw talked about," Dr. Mason said. "He's had a life well lived, and he's earned every bit of his rest, so rest in peace Richard. And I know you're joining Mary. I just get a lump in my throat that he's finally reached the end of the road and did so, so honorably, all along the way."

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