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Meet Steve Schmitt

Posted: September 18, 2014 9:43 a.m.
Updated: September 19, 2014 6:00 a.m.

We spread Steve last week.

His ashes, that is.

Steve Schmitt was a mountain of a man. The first time I saw him, I remember thinking, “Something’s odd here. There are two giant redwood trees growing out of his ankles.”

Indeed.

Steve and I worked together for several years on a Maine island. He was a mechanical genius -- one of those guys who could fix anything. And mind you, “fixing” something isn’t the same as “repairing.” It’s much better.

He maintained our motley collection of outfitter buses -- old school buses which had been put out to pasture and later resurrected to shuttle kayaking passengers to their put-in and take-out points.

We decided to paint one of them lime green, and Steve made it his personal project. When the “Green Machine” was finally done, complete with flashy decals and a dinosaur hood ornament, I could only marvel at how he had transformed it into a neon eyecatcher.

Steve topped out at about 350 in his heaviest days. He was a big man.

Then he decided he needed to do something about it, and gastric bypass surgery helped him trim a hundred or so pounds off his frame.

Even at his lighter weight, he was a formidable guy.

And always cheerful.

He could toss around 90-pound kayaks as if they were toothpicks. And he could expertly back a trailer into a spot with no more than 6 inches of clearance on either side, all the while doing so while never having to stick his head out the window. It was all mirrors, with him.

He was a sweet guy. It might seem incongruous to say a man that big was sweet, but he was. In the best sense of the word.

And then esophageal cancer grabbed him. Some cancers are merely unkind; esophageal cancer is murderous.

He fought it. Oh, did he fight it.

Those potent chemicals the doctors pumped into his body robbed him of his strength and his hair and his energy. But they didn’t take away his spirit.

He fought that damned cancer for three and a half years, much longer than most people survive it.

But, finally, it put him down. He was ready to go, weary of suffering,  and he took his last breaths surrounded by his family in a tiny New York hamlet.

Becky, his widow, was back in Maine last week. She’s doing fine, for she had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable.

“I brought Steve with me,” she said cheerfully and sadly at the same time.

She carried a tiny urn, maybe 3 inches tall, with some of Steve’s ashes. And we set about putting him in the places he loved best.

It was my first ash-spreading experience, and because Steve lives on within all of us, we treated those ashes as if he were walking right along with us.

“I want you to meet Steve Schmitt,” I said to one of our drivers, holding up the miniature urn. “I wish you could have had the chance to know him.”

We put part of Steve out on the company’s  back deck where he greeted customers, and a bit more out in the parking lot, where he picked them up in the Green Machine.

Then we went to the ocean, and on the shores of Frenchman Bay we let Steve drift along in the wind, his ashes settling on that rocky coast he loved so much.

And then we went to the Thirsty Whale, a fine tavern by anyone’s standards. Above our usual table in the back of the pub, a framed picture hangs -- the normal type of wall covering you see in bars and restaurants. On the horizontal edges of the frame, we put a bit more of Steve.

I spread the ashes on the frame so they weren’t too visible. But they’ll be there a long time, down in the crevices where wood meets glass.

I don’t normally like to get too personal in this space I have to share with you each Friday.

But I know you’ll forgive me this time. Though you never knew Steve Schmitt, you know someone like him -- a person of unfailing good spirit and courage who is struck down too soon.

And you can understand why it’s important that people like that live on with us, even as their earthly days are over.

So if you’re ever in Bar Harbor, Maine and you venture into the Thirsty Whale, ask for the last table in the back.

Then you can sit down and have a beer with a genuinely nice guy.

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