Galway-William “Bill” Schilling, 82, of Galway, NY passed peacefully into the hereafter on August 27. The official cause of death will be recorded as dementia, but his exit may also have been a shrewd tactical move by the notoriously frugal engineer to avoid another billing cycle at the (lovely!) facility which had been caring for him in his final days.
Schilling led an outsized life, rich in both intellectual and actual adventures and peopled with a carefully curated selection of individuals that he prized more than anything else. Except for cats, obviously, because they’re easier, better and they purr.
He was born in Milwaukee Wisconsin, the son of one of the most extraordinarily talented craftsman of the modern era. Schilling, by contrast, was a danger to himself and others with power tools and it remains a mystery how he ended life with all his fingers despite the chainsaw. More on that later.
Foresaking crafts, Schilling focused early on more intellectual pursuits, quickly earning the nickname, “The Brain” because he scored 100% on every test he ever took from elementary school all the way through college. So smart was Schilling that no one was the least bit worried when he brought an actual, working musket to 3rd grade show-and-tell. “Obviously,” they reasoned, “no one so smart could hit the side of a barn door.”
His academic prowess lead to overlapping full-ride scholarships to Cornell University where he earned his PhD in Physics. What does one do with overlapping full ride scholarships you ask? Buy a new, tricked out and super sweet Pontiac GTO, of course.
The GTO would figure prominently into his early romantic life. After posting a sign on a message board (a thing from before the internet) saying “Anybody want a ride to the Midwest?” he met his first wife, a Minnesota farm girl named Marjorie “Midge” Seymour. The GTO, apparently, more than compensated for the pocket protector, the slide rule and the Revenge of the Nerds style glasses. No, we are not making any of this up.
That first, message board-facilitated trip to the Midwest was largely made at 120 miles per hour because the engine leaked oil and a salesman had told my dad that driving it really, really fast would heat up the seals and help them set. Was mom impressed? It seems so.
The same car also figured into an episode where Schilling tried, inadvertently, to get his future wife eaten by a bear. While hiking in the Adirondacks, he had run ahead a bit, very sweetly, to warm up the car. Once inside, however, he was accosted by a huge black bear that put its front paws on the car, looking for a handout. Scratches! Egads, no! Dad quickly obliged the bear’s request, throwing a package of cookies out the window… directly toward the trail Ms. Seymour was traveling. But of course, no bear, however big, is really a match for a Midwestern farm girl. She lived. They were married.
Their happy union produced two sons, one of whom, John, was so smart and nerdy that he could only manage to find work as a rocket scientist. The other even smarter son, Brian, has successfully figured out how to avoid work entirely. They are presently fighting over who gets the slide rule.
When not in the woods, Schilling found time to teach, a job that he said paid less than selling shoes, but was more fun. He taught graduate level computer science at SUNY Albany, where he was a popular fixture for 25 years. One has to wonder why, though: one test begins, “Do any ten of the following eleven problems.” The problems were all essays (in a CS class!) and the mean on at least one of his tests was 29%. We are still not making this up, because we don’t have to. The man kept not just old tests, but everything – coupons from the 80s, spices from the 70s, tax records going back to the 1960s, and a notebook that could only have been from his summer job before college. He was a very good filer.
Schilling spent his entire professional career at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, where he was responsible for the facility’s computer systems over a period that spanned the vacuum tube and punch card era all the way to the supercomputing 90s (roughly an Iphone 4). During the early part of this era, he very slowly and methodically replaced a brick of punch cards in a fellow employee’s brief case with an equivalent sized but much heavier brick of lead. The unsuspecting colleague never noticed. Until security arrested him. Good one, dad.
Following the passing of his first wife, Midge, Schilling found himself romantically entangled with Joy Pinnell, a neighborhood widow of good character and the “must-have” ability to produce excellent beef bourguignon. Their happy and successful union lasted 31 years until his death. During that span, the pair traveled the globe, crisscrossing Europe, hot air ballooning in Africa, climbing the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, watching glaciers calve in Alaska, bartering with locals in the shadow of Machu Picchu and looking out the window at Formula One cars zipping by in Monte Carlo. Despite having a really fancy camera for all this, they took lousy pictures. Of stuff! Rather than themselves! Nobody is perfect.
The Schilling-Pinnell union traded the suburbs for the country, allowing Schilling to live out his lifelong fantasy of becoming a gentleman farmer while still living in a really swank house from which you can see Speculator mountain on a clear day some 22 miles away. Which seems like it should be impossible if you understand how the earth curves. But it’s not.
Free from the confines of suburbia, Schilling built a barn, bought enormous snow blowers, burned brush and lovingly taught a trio of wild chipmunks to eat out of his hand. They have been provided for in his will. He also bought and fell in love with his favorite material possession, a creamsicle-colored Stihl chainsaw that he used to fell any tree in his forest that had the audacity to lean even a little bit. Seriously. Every tree on 40 acres stood straight up. Or else.
That he was able to stay in this bucolic paradise as long as he did, until just two weeks before his passing, is due in large part to the hard work and devotion of his step son, Eric, to whom the aforementioned Schilling brothers are forever indebted.
As the world has conspired against allowing any sort of gathering to toast and remember those we’ve lost, please consider instead chopping down a tree, feeding a chipmunk, playing a round of hearts with loved ones, listening to a little classical music and scratching a cat behind the ears. And for goodness sake, somebody shoot the moon. You sure did dad. You will be missed. And we love you.