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The Centennial has resurrected all sorts of stories from the past, some nostalgic, some apocryphal, some ironic, some bittersweet. Yet there is one that may never be surpassed for its poignancy. It is the tale of the last day of Betty and Emil. Some historians and old-timers in the town mention it as one of the saddest ones ever told. I respectfully disagree. To me, although I still weep at the memory of the deed, it was one of the bravest and most noble events in a long, long time...
No Greater Love:
A perspective on the final day in the life of Betty and Emil Schell
Mountain Lakes, New Jersey. The very sound of it might sound oxymoronic to those myopic prisoners of the NJ Turnpike who smirk about the alleged “Garden State” and cannot imagine the grandeur they never savor. They deride the state as a toxic, congested, rude inconvenience sandwiched between two thrilling metropolises. Perhaps they have never explored North Jersey. Sure, we who are the denizens, past and present of the tiny boro of Mountain Lakes, thirty miles west of the George Washington Bridge, are well aware the name is a fraud...the moniker is better pronounced Empty Lakes by the cynics...for there are no real lakes there...just a few shallow ponds decreed to be full-fledged lakes by the boastful developers a century ago...nor are there any mountains, for the loftiest heights of the town up by the water tank soar to a not-so Himalayan 850 feet above the average tide at Lavalette. In this centennial year of the town we can all thank the town’s creators for eschewing the name Hill Ponds, NJ, for their adventurous investment. Had they been boring and literal, the spot on the map might never have captured the imagination of so many romantics over the four generations who turned it into a gem among communities...a town known for its natural and man-made majesty and landscaped charms around every turn of the winding lanes that encircle the ponds and gently civilize the hilly, wooded terrain.
Every Laker knows the unique feeling of blissful decompression that greets one’s frazzled eyes and insulted ears when turning off from the bustle and rudeness of I-80, I-287 and then deadly Route 46 onto Crane Road ...and suddenly enters a utopian vision of American suburbia that must surpass the fondest dreams of founder David Hapgood a century ago. Surely many a commuter from the City knows the escape from anxiety that occurs when he or she steps off the train and the pudding stone of the quaint Lionel-like station lifts decades from slumping shoulders grown weary of the jostling crowds of Midtown or Wall Street. With so few roadways into the palpable serenity of the town, and with the idyllic inlet along Lake Drive commanded by “Gatsby’s house”, and the grandeur of the Boulevard with its companion walking trail below its thick canopy of oaks, and the hundreds of stucco mansions and ambitiously expanded cottages, to enter the town is to welcome engulfment inside a glass sphere, a sanctuary apart from the madding crowds. One of every forty Americans lives in New Jersey, but only one in every 2000 Jerseyites lives in Mountain Lakes. Yet one can travel the world and bump into fellow Lakers in the unlikeliest of spots. There must be a recognizble glow we emit from our brush with paradise, even if ours might only have been a transitory toehold back in the day. As with any village of transcendant beauty and a carefully limited supply of housing, the town is perennially one of the most costly places to buy a home in the entire country.
Interlude for some numbers: (The median household earns $182k to live there. A detached house had an average price of $930k before the housing bubble burst and is now around $750k. 4,357 people now call it home. These stats are obviously atypical for most of the rest of New Jersey. And in 2008, Barack Obama edged out John McCain by about a sixth of one percent of the vote, providing a rare win for the Democratic Party in this affluent, heavily white, increasingly Asian but traditionally, conservative town with so many residents who have powerful ties to the corporate world and some notable inherited fortunes. However, in the old days, it was much easier to surmise a person’s political leanings from his income level than it is today.)
I bet all you Lakers are no doubt familiar with the numerical profile and all the hyperbole about the tranquility of the place: You have hiked the nearby Tourne and danced at The Club and swum at Island Beach and watched the fireworks from a deck or human-powered boat by the “big” lake and picnicked at Birchwood and ice skated on Wildwood and sledded down Pollard (long ago) and watched the skyline from Crestview and played a few sets at Park Lakes and gone to weddings at St. Edwards and caught a few football games at the William O’Donnell Field and played softball at Briarcliff and simply marveled at the breathtaking beauty of the town in all seasons...for each of us knows all too painfully that the town may be eternal, but we mortals are only cascading through for a few borrowed moments in the raging torrent of time.
The passing of Betty and Emil:
The Centennial has resurrected all sorts of stories from the past, some nostalgic, some apocryphal, some ironic, some bittersweet. Yet there is one that may never be surpassed for its poignancy. It is the tale of the last day of Betty and Emil. Some historians and old-timers in the town mention it as one of the saddest ones ever told. I respectfully disagree. To me, although I still weep at the memory of the deed, it was one of the bravest and most noble events in a long, long time...for the message it sends to each of us is universal and crushingly heavy to comprehend. Furthermore, the people involved were heroic and very much in love.
The tragic news of their demise was broken to the members of Mountain Laker Nation piecemeal back on an otherwise ordinary September day in 1995. This was before YouTube and Facebook, in the infancy of our global obsession with texting and email and the shrinking of time and space that has come with social media. The police reports and the letters and obituaries after the apparent murder-suicide gave only sketchy specifics of the events.
An elderly couple was found by the police, drowned in the swimming pool behind the substantial brick home they had moved into about two and a half years earlier at 203 Laurel Hill Drive. The man was strapped in his chair, tethered tightly to the woman who had pushed him and herself over the edge into the deep end. The house was immaculate. A lifetime of personal papers and documents were stacked neatly for the police and ultimately the couple’s four grown sons to discover and sort out. No elaborate suicide notes were discovered, a requisite formal note had been delivered to the funeral home, but no last minute phone calls had been made to family.
The enforcement officials and coroner had to record it as a murder-suicide according to the letter of the law, but the compassionate officers who investigated the tragic scene could not bring themselves to imply any condemnation of this quintessentially humane act. For it was not just any couple. Because this took place in a real community, not in some dismal, festering, overcrowded, anonymous industrial wasteland, the local police knew the victims well. It was Emil and Betty, aged 82 and 80 respectively. Plus, Emil had been in that chair...a wheelchair...for too long a period by then, ever since a series of severe strokes had stolen so much of his ability to continue the otherwise charmed and magical life of the Schells into the uncharted and perilous maze of their final years. Everyone knew them or knew of them, for they were longtime residents, colorful threads in the rich tapestry of the town. Long before the social familiarity that has spread across our culture in recent years, they were always known by their first names...even by their children. Betty and Emil had been married during the Great Depression, ever since their college days in Ohio. They lived for all of their salad years in a mammoth, gorgeous stucco house on a spacious landscaped lot near the top of the ridge on the western side of the town. Unconfirmed rumors flew around that the tall, square, elegant home on Crestview had been originally designed for Mary Pickford, way back in the silent movie era, although she never lived there. Though beguiling and suspect, this historical nugget added a further sense of nostalgic charm about the mansion.
Betty was an energetic, trim, tiny woman with a cheerful chirp to her voice and genuine enjoyment of life’s ironies and follies. When I came home to see my own parents who lived across town and of course to visit the Schells, even when my dear high school buddy Tim was away on a road trip to some famous ballpark or at Hiram where he went to college, or when Tim was teaching and counseling on the reservation near Phoenix, Betty would always greet me like family. She would find the time to slap together a ham and lettuce sandwich for me and I would bask in the aura of her infectious ebullience. And when Tim and I were in high school, Betty placed no arbitrary restrictions on the fun or the clock as we and other friends played catch, rolled the dice in APBA baseball games, marveled at the wall of original baseball cards he glued (to his later chagrin when the value of such a collection soared) to one gigantic wall of his second floor bedroom, and often took over the formal gardens and perimeter stone walls as our field of adolescent wiffleball dreams. Hitting uphill from home plate, it was considered a prodigious shot to knock one out over the perennials, past the drooping limbs of the towering spruce, and onto the intersection of Van Duyne and Crestview. We revered the unintended park the way true fans now think or Fenway or Wrigley, but Betty would never be out there scolding or protesting...and there would be some bug juice and a warm smile and a thick sandwich on Taystee Bread swabbed with Cool Whip awaiting the victors and vanquished alike. For that was just Betty with her effervescent spirit, doing what she loved to do.
Farther up the hill was the croquet field rimmed by rare roses nurtured lovingly by the Schells where the penalty for getting knocked away by a savage pounding of the mallet was to watch one’s ball roll downhill to lower terraces, or into virtual oblivion. There was the basketball hoop by the circular driveway made famous by an impossible ill-fated peg shot attempted...and probably not swished...by our Mt. Lakes classmate Dick Weber as he leaned out of Ralph Sears’ car window...but witnesses remembered the crash into the wall more than the result of the bodacious and desperate heave. I missed that highlight.
The great, square, lavishly fenestrated and enormous house of multiple porches featured a kind of screened sleeping lair on the western side of the second floor, where Timmy, a legendary snoozer, would set records for sheer dormancy...especially after a marathon of Crazy-8’s or battling it out with me and Pete Cowin and Bill Kenney in wild ping pong competitions in the cavernous attic playroom. Tim was legendary at college and beyond for sometimes hibernating through entire weekends if there was nothing on the sports docket. Betty took all of this in with exceptional tolerance for, and steadfast encouragement of, the differences among her four sons, Anthony, Tim, Chris, and Nick, as well as for their parade of buddies. There was no scripting, no coercion to follow in anyone’s footsteps, and no hyperscheduling of activities...an affliction too often the bane of the suburban overachieving class...for Betty chose to live as a blithe spirit, blissfully embracing her liberty and the pursuit of happiness. She knew the Declaration of Independence was speaking straight to her. She was the absolutely delightful antithesis of the stereotypically driven, taut, intense, clubby, unbearably frenetic supermom. She was the kindest person around...the kids did their very limited list of chores without complaint, with no voice raised and no guilt trips handed down. As Mountain Lakes was to the din of New Jersey’s breathless commercial pace, the Schell’s hilltop sanctuary was to the town. I enjoyed the reality at their home: fewer trophies and lower blood pressure.
The other half of the team who created this soothing atmosphere was the cerebral, erudite, intellectually curious Emil. He had met Betty Woods over sixty years before that final day. Wiry, angular, thickly dark-haired, and prototypically Swiss in his manner and looks, Emil would puff on his pipe and read the paper from his proper armchair by the fireplace in the expansive yet casual living room. His hearty laugh and fixed gaze were disarming but always friendly, with a twinkle in the eyes and such sincere enjoyment of the cavalcade of life. For decades he worked as a mathematician for IBM. His real passion when outside the computer research labs was for Duke Ellington. In an era before the instant access to music we all take for granted with iTunes and the effortless magic of the iPod, Emil would scour the music bins and jazz clubs and LP warehouses of the world in his spare time for every song or snippet extant from the incomparable Duke and his vaunted orchestra. Emil would have these songs, concerts, interviews, and anything else he could dig up, carefully transcribed and preserved magnetically by the hundreds on reel-to-reel tapes that he catalogued meticulously by hand. His forays into New York or Mexico or wherever were built around his lifelong obsession with the man and his music.
So whenever I entered his domain for a visit, usually deliberately at suppertime, the pleasantries were genuine but minimal, for Emil would inevitably have some rare track from the Duke, or intriguing enigma, or perplexing puzzle, or unique artifact of some sort, or wry observation, or mathematical quandary...or whatever his insatiably active mind was analyzing and decoding at the time...and he would share his innocent amazement at the wonder of the physical universe to his captive but inquisitive audience. The ultimate rational man in search of the essence of the world as it is, but also the quintessential dreamer of what that world could become. There had to be an explanation! Nothing exists that humankind cannot figure out! I would wager he would have been comfortable and engaged while delving into the mysteries of the cosmos with the likes of da Vinci or Newton or Jefferson or Edison or Einstein or Jobs. Instead, in the real world, whisking in on the autumn breeze comes yours truly who was his second son Timmy’s staunch friend, stomping through the door after way too many hours on the road in his 1955 Olds 98 from some point far-flung location on a Thanksgiving weekend...so let the games begin! I am not sure I ever dazzled Emil with my stumbling responses to his infinitely challenging musings or arcane puzzles or chess problems, but I played along the best a mere mortal could as this amazing and unusual man spun his enchanting ideas, so patiently, humbly, deliberately, and ultimately so cleverly, like fine gold. How overjoyed he would be today, had the clock not run out for him too soon, by the explosion of knowledge and human potential that the Internet has created for us all. He doubtless saw that coming too, for he was in on the early days of the computer revolution.
This gentle man was not just a top researcher and an armchair philosopher. No, he put his good mind and fine character to work for the school board in Mt. Lakes, a position he held for several years while Bee Van Til was also a member. They championed progressive causes in the schools and fought the good fights together to attain the high ground for the students and the teachers alike. Typically for him, when my mother retired from her duties on the board, Emil, who had mastered the art of precise calligraphy, composed an eloquent, gracious, framed document of thanks in ornate style...and that charter on parchment, with all its grandiose “whereas Bee’s”, remains on the wall for my dear mother to see and admire at her lake home, forty-five years after she and my father moved to Indiana. Some people make ripples in the curtains of time, and some cause violent distortions...but some special people, such as Emil Schell, were the rare ones who draw the curtain back to reveal a better world.
So when I followed along with the events of the Mt. Lakes Centennial, thanks to the frequent updates from the dynamic heartbeat of the town and my old traveling and tennis buddy Mike O’Donnell, I paid close attention to the way the last day of Betty and Emil would be handled by the media. There was even a short drama written in 2005 by Dale Andersen, called “A Team Player” that sidestepped the unsettling details of the wrenching events but dramatized the excruciating ethical questions involved for anyone facing such a terrible period of crisis after a spouse has been cruelly stricken. Of course, this was handled delicately, with the ages and marital relationship and other particulars disguised and fictionalized to protect the living. (Mr. Andersen, a California-based playwright with roots in Mt. Lakes, extended his drama to full-length in 2007, entitling it “The Best Years of Her Life”.)
However the core of the moral enigma facing the Schells..and ultimately confronting most people who see the end of their days approaching...remains unchanged. During the centennial year soon concluding, there were mentions of how the murder-suicide, if that is what one would choose to call a supreme act of love and mercy, might be the saddest single tale in the otherwise predictable history of this affluent, secluded, sanctuary of comfort. This grotesque comparison of levels of grief is dangerous territory to tread, for over the century there were a few horrific auto accidents and gruesome deaths in war and there were the haunting acts of heinous terrorism an hour east of town and there were unspeakable losses of children to leukemia and influenza and polio and other pernicious processes. After all, much more than half of the people who ever lived in Mountain Lakes are now deceased, and this planet offers far too few painless ways to leave the station. And some might argue that the Schells were elderly in years and had sculpted exemplary civic, family and professional lives as close to the mythical ideals as any young marrieds would dare to imagine for their hoped-for half century together. So let’s not delve into that sensitive emotional thicket of ranking dimensions of sadness and regret, or loss and emptiness, or whatever.
For myself and my parents and the hundreds of people who knew and loved Betty and Emil and became friends with any or all of their life-affirming, happy, wonderful sons, we cannot remember the events of that final day as a crime. For it was something very different, and more noble and incredibly more significant than any headline or note in the public record could describe. Yes, everyone cried when they heard the news and shuddered when they considered the universal circumstances of their all too human impasse as the final act winds down, and we have all felt deeply and forever this sudden departure of two beloved octogenarians. But it was, in my opinion and perhaps in the minds of many others, a statement by Betty and Emil that life and love are too pr ecious to end in a long, drawn out, agonizing decline into nothingness...an unwitnessed shriek into the abyss of eternity that a person like Emil did not deserve to have his magnificent, active, kindly, probing mind debilitated by a stroke of fate, his profound humanity and hers enslaved to the maintenance of a failing corporeal framework that now ensnared them both so that neither could possibly hope to perpetuate the glory of their life. Nor was it right to expect Betty to endure her remaining years without him, for they were truly a couple in the purest sense of the term. She lived as if there were a special melody playing in her heart, and it was surely a joyful tune. There are Romeos and Juliets in this world who are well past their teen-aged years. No, my friends, this mutually agreed to, merciful, compassionate, loving, and ultimately brave path that Emil and Betty chose to take was certainly not a crime. It was the opposite of that. I never harbored a doubt it was anything but a supreme act of courage that says there is no greater love. For in their sixty years of devotion to each other and in their commitment to living a meaningful, generous, decent, and complete life together, they showed the rest of us a brighter pathway. Thank you, Betty and Emil, for what you were...and for what you are in our hearts and our friendship for the boys you nurtured into fine men...and for what you will always represent in our collective memory as the very best of what Mountain Lakes tries to be.
Roy Van Til, Vienna, ME...wishing my friends and family a Happy Thanksgiving.
November 16, 2011
The old Schell home in modern times on Crestview Road in Mountain Lakes, after a large addition was built onto the northerly side by the Joyce family for themselves and their many children...the wiffle ball field of yesteryear is in the foreground. (Photo of the old Schell house was snapped by RVT a few years ago on a now infrequent visit to Mt. Lakes from my home in the Maine woods. The Van Tils lived in the town from 1957 to 1967, down on Morris Avenue. The photo of a youthful Timmy Schell was taken by a school photographer in the fab fifties. The picture of the Mountain Lakes entrance sign was taken by Dick RHINO Koster back in 1957 or so.)