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Remembering the Scheels

After being assigned to write a story about a 90-year-old man who had no idea what the term “elderly” meant, I had no idea what to expect.

When I pulled into the driveway at his home, I figured it out before I had a chance to get out of my vehicle. Although somewhat frail, the man was scooping snow with a large scoop shovel with the mercury fighting to stay above 10 degrees.

And he wasn’t taking little scoops like you would expect from a man his age. He would fill the shovel and toss the snow like it was cotton.

Willie and Gloria Scheel, of Paynesville, died in March. Their grandson faces murder charges for their deaths. Photo by Scott Thoma

“Do you want me to finish that for you?” I asked him, feeling guilty standing shovel-less in his driveway while watching a nine-decade old man work like a pioneer farmer.

“I’m doing fine,” he said, without even breathing hard. “I’d have been done by now, but I’ve got a little cold, and I have to stop to blow my nose every now and again.”

When he finished cleaning the driveway, he suggested that we go inside the house because he was concerned that I might get cold standing outside; even though he had been the one outside shoveling for an hour, and I had only been facing the elements for less than a minute.

Once inside the home, the man’s wife greeted me with similar kindness, making me feel like I was someone special. I would later find out that’s because they felt everyone was important to them.

“They are one of a kind,” Inez Jones told me, after suggesting the story for the Senior Perspective three years ago. “All they want to do is help others and enjoy life. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all think and act like that?”

Unfortunately, their kindness was allegedly what led to a tragic ending to their story.

On March 23, this vibrant Paynesville couple had their life tragically taken away when they were allegedly murdered by their grandson, Gregory Scheel, who was arrested shortly after the couple was discovered dead in the back of their vehicle on a county road north of Willmar.

The grandson, who had a troubled past that led to numerous arrests that included DWI, drug-related charges and theft, had lived with the Scheels the past three months in hopes they could direct his life toward the right path.

The news of the Scheels’ death shook the entire town of Paynesville. After all, they were like celebrities in town because of all the businesses they owned, their community involvements, their countless acts of kindness, and even their celebrity status after appearing in the Senior Perspective and a segment on WCCO-TV.

“You made me a celebrity,” Willie emailed me after the article appeared in Senior Perspective. “Guess I’ll have to shovel your driveway now.”

Willie Scheel was 93 years old when he died. Gloria was 80. They had been married for 59 years.

Willie had trouble answering a question without tossing in a wisecrack or two in each sentence. His voice had become a loud whisper after surgery for larynx cancer. In fact, he had been diagnosed with cancer seven times and laughed them off each time.

“Cancer hasn’t been able to beat me yet,” he joked. “I don’t stand still long enough for it to knock me down. Sometimes when I talk for a long time, I have to stop to catch my breath. Maybe that’s a sign that I shouldn’t talk so much.”

Willie and Gloria went downhill skiing together for 35 years in 26 ski areas that included the French Alps. They didn’t stop until Willie turned 85.

“Time to put my toys away,” he explained about retiring his ski equipment.

Willie was also an avid ping pong player who could beat most anyone he played against, regardless of age, at the Paynesville Area Center. That included WCCO-TV reporter John Lauritsen, who traveled to Paynesville last year to interview the Scheels for a feature story.

“For 92 years old, Willie was in great shape and still had excellent hand-eye coordination,” said Lauritsen. “He was strategic when you played against him. He would move you around and set you up for a shot that worked in his favor. But most of all, he didn’t take it too serious, so it made it even more fun to play against him.”

For the past 17 years, the Scheels delivered Meals on Wheels, many times to seniors much younger than they were.

“Willie drives, but we take turns delivering them to the people,” Gloria revealed. “The places are spread out, so we drive about 20 miles each time.”

It was estimated that they had delivered over 15,000 meals.

When told that he is accomplishing things that men half his age aren’t capable of, Willie gave me one of his patented smirks while raising one eyebrow before uttering “I don’t believe a word you are saying.”

As I had written in the original story three years ago, the interview with the Scheels was like a vaudeville show, with Gloria setting up his jokes as if she were his straight man. And even though she had heard his jokes a thousand times, she would still laugh out loud at them.

“Definitely you could tell his jokes were told a million times, but Gloria still laughed at all of them,” Lauritsen remembered. “I think that’s what made them such a great couple and great people in general.”

The Scheels and I kept in contact over the last three years via email (mostly jokes he would send) or an occasional phone call.

“I’m going to be on TV,” Willie called to tell me when he found out Lauritsen was coming to Paynesville to do a segment for Channel 4 on his age-defying activities. “I’d better dust off my old jokes for them.”

Even though the Scheels made everyone laugh and smile when they were alive, there was nothing but sadness and tears when their deaths were reported.

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