A Fisher of Men
A Tribute to Ben Schley
by Bill Howard
as printed in the Summer 1996 Issue of the Shepherdstown Good News Paper
Rivers, he told me, are living things, treasures to love and cherish…the very life blood of our earth. But like all living things they must be cared for and defended. “The Potomac is our very own river, yours and mine,” he said, “and one day it will be yours to watch over and care for.” —Ben quoting his father from the introduction to Woodsmoke
Perhaps it was predictable, in hindsight, that Ben Schley would leave us without instructions for his funeral. His life was about living and doing what he loved, not just dreaming about it, and while he never shied from a healthy philosophical discussion, the subject of death and dying rarely came up. Until the very end, those close to him were convinced that he could live forever or surely until after one of his next fishing adventures which he seemed to place like footholds along his life’s path. Not six months before his death at 80, Ben was fishing for steelhead (trout). Despite his battle with leukemia, he had waded for hours in the wintry waters of Washington State.
Ben took care of a few of the essential details of departure, like providing for extended nursing home care for his wife Shirrel. But how he was to be remembered, and how a fitting resting place was to be determined, was left for the living. When trying to interpret what Ben might have wanted, his friends and loved ones discovered just how much of Ben was in them and they in him, and some new powerful friendships were forged in the process.
By Christmas of last year emergency transport at the tender hands of the Shepherdstown Fire Department had become frequent. I asked the Rev. Randy Tremba, minister of the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, to visit City Hospital where Ben was undergoing routine transfusions, now complicated by infections. Ben had not often darkened the door of a church, but, I figured, if anyone could offer an unassuming visit, it was Randy. They both had known and admired one another for years through the Good News Paper, where Ben had served as an at-large, outdoor editor for many years. At the end of his visit, Ben asked Randy, in a backslapping kind of way, to “say a few words over me when the time comes.” That was as much of a funeral arrangement as Ben ever made.
Ben’s time came in mid-February. Responding to the call for family, Ben’s son Tom and his partner Liz made a treacherous, non-stop wintry drive from Massachusetts, arriving just before Ben took his last breath. Although he was not aware of Tom’s presence, we are convinced that Ben sensed Tom had arrived safely and knew it was okay to let go. He died peacefully.
At his side were Ben’s loving companion, Joni Schwabe, who did much to make Ben’s last years manageable and enjoyable; Marta and Paul Squire, his daughter and son-in-law, and close by, his young granddaughters Rebecca and Cody. Ben’s brother Captain John Schley was out of the country, unable to get back for the service. His home, however, was made available for out-of-town guests and for an “extended” afterglow.
Many of us took off from work and school to assist with preparing for a memorial service. That hazy week leading up to the service was filled with tears and much laughter as our thoughts and prayers revolved around the gift of the life of Benjamin Harrison Schley. Arrangements were made, not without frustration and a little healthy ire at the details Ben had left undone.
Although both the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches were available, Ben’s family decided to look for an open setting on or near the Potomac. They found it at the Isaak Walton lodge on Whitings Neck overlooking the Potomac River. The lodge was ideally suited for the man the Washington Post sports writer Angus Phillips called the “unofficial dean of Potomac River fly fishermen.” Ben had been a fishing guide to the likes of Dwight Eisenhower, Howard Hughes, and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. He had fished all over the world, but favored no place more than his stretch of the Potomac.
Butch Sanders, who with Linda Shea had exchanged wedding vows at the lodge several years ago, first checked on the availability of the facility. Not only was it available, but also chapter Vice President Fred Ford graciously and expeditiously activated a small cadre of volunteers to perform a mid-week, mid-winter shake-down of the dormant lodge with support from his boss, Bob Putz. Although the lodge is normally reserved for members of the conservation organization, its management considered it an honor to host this outdoorsman’s memorial. New Year’s decorations still dangled loosely from a slightly tipsy, wall-mounted moose head over the fireplace, but the rustic log retreat was quickly readied for the family’s finishing touches. The memorial service had gained a life of its own as details fell magically into place.
One hundred fifty chairs were arranged into three elongated and concentric circles focused around a small center table containing a single vase and candle. Liz made this part work so perfectly. At one end of the Hall, the fireplace blazed against the February chill. The circle was open slightly to allow a clear view of the hearth and a buffer from the heat. At the opposite end of the room, the seating gave way to a single oriental rug and table on which was displayed much of Ben’s special “stuff.”
The table was full of odd but beloved memorabilia: family photographs; Ben’s fly-tying materials and samples of his patented Potomac bass flies; several pictures of his prized hunting dogs over the years, most notably Fairfax and Tui (exceptional Brittany Spaniels who both served their master and his fortunate companions so well); all graced the table. There was also a copy of Woodsmoke, a recently published collection of Ben’s articles and short stories, many of which had previously been published in Sporting Classics; Last Cast and Stolen Hunts, a book from White Oak Press; the prestigious Fly Fisherman magazine; Sport Fishing USA; and the Good News Paper and the Potomac Guardian. Many of his original sketches and watercolors, some reproduced in Ben’s book, were on display.
A cap hung proudly bearing the insignia of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where Ben served for more than twenty years as hatchery director and later, public affairs officer. Ben was an early force behind the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and was one of the original proponents of catch-and-release. I only saw Ben keep one fish in fifteen years.
There were hat pins from such countries as Slovenia and New Zealand, two of Ben’s most favorite haunts. There was a communiqué from Jose (Yo-sha) Osvirk, the director of Sport Fisheries in Slovenia expressing heart-felt sympathies to the family and gratitude for having shared Ben’s friendship. Ben met Jose while traveling in the former Yugoslavia for the World Bank assisting a large hatchery project. I treasure the two weeks in 1989 when I joined Ben on a return visit to Slovenia for 15 days of spectacular trout fishing and warm hospitality. Jose was like a son to Ben.
Another of Ben’s constant companions, Art Hendrick, who was fishing in England, had forwarded a short eulogy recounting how Ben, on one of their trips to Christmas Island, sporting a full beard, had been mistaken for Santa Claus.
On the wall above the table was Ben’s 9’ 3” Orvis Spring Creek fly rod, a lone representative from an impressive lifetime collection, but probably his favorite. Ben could get a substantial discount from the Orvis Company and quietly shared it with a fortunate few. Although he had a personal friendship with the president of the sporting goods giant, Ben did not go in for all the flash and modern gadgetry, and was notably frugal.
In fact, he was rather famous for the simplicity of his equipment. In the Post obituary, Angus Phillips referred to Bill Heavey’s profile of Ben which appeared in the June 1995 issue of Field and Stream magazine. The author had been “startled when the famous flyrodder arrived for their fishing date with his tackle in a cast-off woman’s purse, his socks held up by rubber bands and his sunglasses tied on with fishing line.”
Leaning against the wall behind the table was Ben’s 20 gauge side-by-side and draped over a chair was his Egyptian cotton hunting coat. Hanging from a nail was a simple cane fishing creel, which he never used, that held a small and partially concealed wooden box, the catch of the day—Ben’s ashes.
The day of the service was cold and rainy. Travel to the Neck and parking were both a problem yet many familiar and friendly faces kept coming, braving the elements. I especially remember when Lige Miller arrived. He shared Ben’s great love for Brittanys. Despite two severely degenerated knees, Lige made his way unassisted up the formidable concrete steps. “I wouldn’t have missed this,” he said.
Bill Heavey who had only met Ben that single day on the River, to interview Ben for his Field and Stream article, was there and noticeably moved. Everyone exchanged greetings like old friends, many of whom Ben had introduced. Most were quickly drawn to the familiar curiosities of the far table. Or perhaps the large self-portrait drew them. Ben’s kindly mustachioed smile and attentive eyes always drew a crowd.
Just as the fire reached perfect dimensions, Tom rang a small handbell. Nearly all seats were filled. Ben’s granddaughter Cody lit the small candle on the center table. A light wind came through the double side doors, left open to reveal the lovely elevated view of the Potomac. The candle flickered. Most everyone sensed Ben’s spirit, at that moment, among us. The fire crackled.
Randy welcomed the gathering on behalf of the family. With a slightly modified story of creation which he called the “Trout Unlimited Version of the Bible,” Randy gave just the right touch of humor and compassion suitable to the spirit of the man and the occasion. (“In the beginning God created the fishes….and then God created Ben….”). Singer and folk guitarist Judith Layman led the gathering in an opening song, the Gaelic melody “Morning Has Broken,” and provided beautiful musical interludes to the two Quaker-style segments of sharing and silence. At least fourteen people took the opportunity to share special memories of Ben. I took no notes but remember many by heart.
Henry Morrow spoke first, going farther back with Ben than anyone, sharing memories of childhood exploits with John and the “older brother” Ben.
Paul Squire remembered a curious and revealing custom. Ben could often be seen saluting a lone crow passing overhead and encouraging a companion to do the same. Asked why, he responded, “If you don’t, who will?”
Son Tom told a story about camping as a boy with Ben in their secret cave. When Ben arose in the middle of the night, he knocked himself out on the cave roof and Tom found him the next morning lying in a pool of blood, not sure if he was alive or dead. When they arrived home, Ben told Shirrel and Marta that a bear had reached out and scratched him on the head. He bore the scar all his life.
Marta explained John’s absence and added a story about John tagging along with Ben as a pesky little brother. Knowing that their mother would be angry if she heard that Ben had called John something bad, Ben had said, “Get out of here, you pedestrian you!” John went off crying, convinced that he had been insulted. Ben told Marta this story when they were canoeing on the Potomac near Shepherdstown. They proceeded to name a rock “Pedestrian Rock” and then named Ben’s newly developed fly the “Pedestrian.” Ben claimed that John never did learn what a pedestrian was. The fly was later mentioned in Ben’s New York Times obituary.
Marta told a story of Claire Goulding, Ben’s cousin, who, upon hearing of Ben and Shirrel’s upcoming wedding, turned to Shirrel and said, “Do you like to fish?”
Potomac River fishing guide Mark Kovach had one of my favorite lines: “Ben Schley was a keeper.” He talked about how he had read Ben’s articles before meeting him and felt as if he knew him instantly. Mark also marveled that Ben seemed to have friends of all ages.
Bill Hartgroves spoke eloquently of his association with Ben through the Potomac Valley Audubon Society. Ben had been one of the original organizers and was on the first board of directors.
Pearl Rohrer had not met Ben, but spoke of meeting Tom and Liz in her shop during the past week and getting a powerful sense of this man, referring to the effect we can have on other people’s lives —”the ever widening ripples from a stone cast into the river.”
John Gottschalk, Ben’s former boss and past Director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, described Ben’s critical involvement in the early movement to protect our scenic rivers. He referred to Ben as an aesthete, a consummate fishing and hunting companion, and that “to watch Ben cast a fly was a thing of beauty.”
The service ended with the traditional “passing of the peace.” Pausing only briefly for a few quick greetings afterward (and a bite of Ellsworth’s catered delights), three of Ben’s adopted sons—Mark Kovach, Paul Squire and I—were drawn to the river’s edge. It felt good to get outside—as Paul reminded us, “our relationship with Ben was not an indoor thing.” We gathered at a small landing where the Opequon, running surprisingly clear, joined the Potomac, which was calm but too muddy for fishing with a fly. We had all been baptized by a master in these waters. The fog was trying to lift, a light drizzle came and went. Ben would have approved of Mark’s proffered bottle of 18-year-old single malt scotch, an exquisite remedy against the day.
Gradually others found us, including Tom Schley, delayed by his official duties, and Ben’s recent acquaintance, Greg Byrne. Reminiscences gave way to fish stories. The ranks grew as Jim Holland, who shared a fence line with Ben, added significantly to the intellectual level of the company. Newly initiated hunting companion Dick Klein slipped into the circle. Schley stories gave way to a round of toasts and then to ceremony. Now, his self-appointed oarsmen (there would be no pall bearers), we planned an elaborate mid-summer float trip in Ben’s honor, promising to reconvene in late May to organize the event. When the scotch was gone, we tightly rolled a copy of the order of service which included Ben’s picture into what could only be described as the perfect bottle. Tom resealed the cork and set the vessel adrift, an act Ben probably would not have permitted or forgiven. In military style, I fired a single shot from Ben’s side-by-side into the air. The crisp report, reminiscent of so many field trips, was moving by itself—but it was the unexpected echo, returning gently but firmly from the hills he loved, that brought the tears.
Tight lines, Ben.