A Life Long-Lived

My grandpa would have turned 100 this coming April.


An excerpt from his obituary:

Donald W. Schenck, World War II veteran, died on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2016 of natural causes.  He was 99.  He leaves behind two very proud and grateful sons and a plethora of family and friends whose lives were richly influenced by this loving, humorous, and sometimes gruff but ultimately gentle giant. He was looked upon lovingly as “Dad” by many besides his own sons.

Don was born April 25, 1917 in Great Falls, MT to Carl and Emma Schenck of Neihart, MT, the 6th of 11 children.  He lived in Neihart until he was nine years old. The family moved to Great Falls in 1926 and Donald completed his education there, graduating from Great Falls High School in 1935. He lived in Shelby, MT from 1935 to 1972, where he began his career, met his wife Ethel, and raised a family.  In 1972 he and Ethel moved to Helena, where he continued a full and rich life until his death.

He met Shelby girl Ethel D. Gunderson in 1937 and they were married on June 23, 1941 in Great Falls by Pastor Lunde of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, who had also married Don’s parents in 1909 and Ethel’s parents in 1915. They had two sons, Melvin in 1946 and Clayton in 1949.

Don enlisted in the U. S. Navy SeaBees as a Yeoman on July 24, 1942 and was stationed in the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, D. C. and the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Arlington, Virginia from late 1942 until April of 1945, He was then ordered to temporary duty north of the Arctic Circle near Bettles, Alaska in support of a Navy Seabees survey crew providing engineering work for the construction of an airstrip.   This airstrip was vital to air travel over the Brookes Range between Fairbanks and Point Barrow in Alaska.  He received his honorable discharge on January 4, 1946 as a Yeoman First Class and returned to his wife and home in Shelby. Three of Don’s brothers served in the war in the European front, and his brother Melvin died in a German prisoner of war camp at the end of the war.


Growing up, my sister and I would spend every other summer and every winter up in Montana with Grandma and Grandpa. I remember one summer, he told me that “children we meant to be seen, not heard”. I spent most of my time with Grandma anyways, watching her make pies and helping her cook Christmas dinner. Grandma and Grandpa were the ones to introduce my sister and I to casseroles and cheese whiz.  They also called their couch a “davenport” and wallets “billfolds”. Grandpa aways carried a white cloth handkerchief around in his back pocket for when his nose needed honking. He often used to try and steal my nose too, a trick that would always confuse me but would bring out a giggle anyway.


Grandpa and I didn’t really have much in common, and if we did it was kept secret. As a tween, when everything was about peace signs for me, Grandpa went on a rant because he believed the peace sign was a symbol of the broken arms of a cross. In winter of 1988, after the Dukakis/Bush election, I asked Grandma and Grandpa who they voted for. That did not go over well, because apparently politics were never to be discussed at the dinner table. I think Grandma was actually pretty liberal, which was at odds with conservative Grandpa. I wonder if they even ever discussed politics with each other.


Grandpa was very devoted to his faith, a subject that I actively avoided discussing with him. He adamantly believed the bible was the direct word of god, and that it should be taken literally, whereas one of my favorite books is “the God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. Needless to say, I never bothered to talk about science, politics, or religion with him as I knew it would only lead to huge blowups during the holidays. Instead, we stuck to conversations about the weather, the dinner, and the holiday decorations. In the later years, more often than not, Grandpa would just sit at the table sneaking scraps to the dog while the rest of us carried on in our conversations.


Grandpa was also very dedicated to public service and giving back to his community. He once tried to explain to me what the Freemasons were, and what he did with the Lions Club. I asked why Grandma wasn’t also a Freemason, and I don’t remember ever getting an answer. The only thing I understood at the time was that with the Lion’s Club helped raise money to provide glasses to children who needed them, and I thought that was cool. I was 8 years old and my only exposure to clubs and associations were the Chinese Family Associations my mom belonged to. I remember thinking that these were the same, but for white people.


I hadn’t been back to Montana to see Grandpa since December 2009. I wish I had asked Grandpa to teach me how to fish. I regret never asking him to tell me stories about growing up in what is now a ghost town in Montana. I think my sister was better at that stuff, and most of the time I preferred to be an observer rather than a participator. That’s my sister above, dancing with Grandpa at her wedding.