This was my remembrance for my grandfather, Warner Schilling, given at his Columbia University Memorial Service on December 13, 2013:
I’m Jeremy Schilling, Warner’s grandson. My task here today was supposed to be to give all of you a look at the personal life of my grandfather. However as I sat down to write this, I realized that one theme kept showing up over and over again: Even away from the classroom, Warner was always a teacher always wanting to learn.
You see, being the grandson to Warner Schilling is an interesting thing. I am the second generation descendant of a brilliant mind, and before I was even born – in ‘88 – he arguably accomplished more than I ever will in my entire life.
So you can either be intimidated and overwhelmed by the prospect of being in his presence or you can just enjoy the ride. And while I had some bumps early on as I figured out firsthand that I needed to have my facts right or else, I tried to enjoy the ride as much as I could. And it was an awesome one.
You never quite knew what was going to happen next. Whether it be calling out two students who were barely whispering in class, his mandatory decree that we visit some military-related place on vacation, griping about how the potatoes were cooked on Christmas, or insisting he still use the WordPerfect version meant for DOS and Windows 3.1.
But there are three distinct memories that give insight into how my grandfather kept on teaching and learning, no matter the locale.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that in most houses, Christmas presents are either wrapped with no tag, a tag that says “from Santa,” or a tag from the giver. But no, not the Schillings. Instead, our gifts came from “Elves,” and our task was to decipher the clue and figure out what the gift was. THEN you could open it.
This would take FOREVER, with the guessing game sometimes hitting immediate success or interminable dead ends. These were intellectually based gifts, so the guessing game would make you go crazy, but I came to enjoy it. It was part of the fun of Christmas with my grandfather. As I’ve told any friend who was jealous of me getting twice the holiday presents by celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas, “No, you don’t get it. Things are just different on this side of the family.” You were bound to learn something, and that was exactly the plan.
Warner not only used this opportunity to teach, but also as a learning experience for himself from the gifts he received. He would literally jump from his seat when he finally guessed the gift correctly or succumbed to a dead end and just opened the damn thing…25 minutes later.
Then there’s my college radio show. The debut show in September 2007 was an absolute mess, marred by technical glitches and prank calls, among other things.
But while I returned to my room that night frustrated and aggravated, Warner saw a teachable moment. I opened my email the following evening to find a 13(!) paragraph email containing feedback and advice on how to improve the show. It was all under the subject line of “Baptism of Fire.”
The email ends in classic Warner fashion, with him saying, “So, congratulations again. You have made it through your baptism of fire! Forward! And I look forward to next Sunday night! Love, PW.”
Last winter, when he was in the hospital and his health was touch and go for a while, I went to visit him to try to brighten his day. My expectations for the visit were low so when he asked for a favor, what he requested caught me way off guard.
I assumed he would ask me to get a nurse, take down a note or fetch something from a neighboring table. But instead, he requested information on North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear warhead and an update on possible peace talks between the Turks and the Kurds.
It was proof that even in the darkest of moments his brain kept churning. I shouldn’t have expected anything less.
He proudly attended my high school band concerts at Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall, went to my college graduation, and supported me in every endeavor I took on.
But most of all he was a teacher – always and forever – and in his own distinctive style. Knowing what was going on in the world was his oxygen; he read three newspapers every single day. When I think back on Papa Warner, I will always remember that being up to date on current affairs – both domestic and foreign – was not an option. It was a requirement. And for this I am eternally grateful.