Friend remembers blacksmith who made final investment in students
Walter Schmitt donated his entire estate to the university.
Posted: Fri, Jun 3, 2011
Cindi Heiden will never forget the first time she met Walter Schmitt. It was the early '90s. He walked into her H & R Block office in York, Neb., to hire her to do his taxes. She had no idea what he'd mean to her one day, and to University of Nebraska students.
From a conversation with Cindi:
He wore overalls, a ball cap from the co-op in town, a flannel shirt with pens in the pocket and white Velcro tennis shoes from Wal-Mart. His arms were muscular from being a blacksmith. He had blue eyes. When he smiled, they twinkled.
He'd been doing his own tax returns for years – really complicated tax returns. But he said he was getting older and had found out he had cancer and just wanted to turn it over to someone.
After that, he'd stop in whenever he was in town or call when he had a letter from one of his stock companies. He invested in stocks on his own. We talked a lot about investing. He kept me on my toes.
When he was alive, his blacksmith shop in Gresham was the place to be. He always had a Wall Street Journal on his blacksmith bench. He invested wisely – Exxon, Chevron, a lot of the oil companies. He'd come into my office with all of his tax forms in a plastic grocery bag, all tied up. That cracked me up.
Over the years, he became like a grandpa to me. We talked about his parents. His dad had come from Germany. He'd been a blacksmith, too. His mother had come from Czechoslovakia. He took care of her for years after his father passed away. He never married.
We talked about my children. He always asked how they were doing in school. He hadn't cared for school himself. But he loved to learn.
The sensible part of Walter was that he didn't like to pay income taxes. He'd discovered back in the ‘70s when he made his will that if he gave money to charity, he could avoid estate taxes. He chose the University of Nebraska because of his love for learning. He just decided that Nebraska had been good to him. He wanted the money to be used for scholarships.
He also wanted his body to be used for science, so he donated it to the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
He had a light stroke the summer before he passed away. The visits I had with him were probably some of the best ones – just he and I in this little nursing home in Utica.
I'll never forget the last time I saw Walter. He'd been taken to a Lincoln hospital. I got there as soon as I could. I sat on his bed. He told me he'd gotten his corn sold, and the price was the best ever. We talked about his mom. We prayed together. He said the Lord's Prayer. He said it in German.
That fall, I attended an orientation session at the med center with my daughter, who was a first-year med student at the time. In the Gross Anatomy lab, I saw scores of cadavers enclosed in white bags. Each body had a note card describing the person's age, month of death, cause of death and other health issues. One note card just took my breath away. It was Walter's.
I said a prayer for him as I stood there. I got a hug from my daughter, who stood there, too.
The next spring, the students at the medical center had a memorial service to honor the people who'd donated their bodies. I told them all about Walter, and how he was such a great guy.
Schmitt, who died in January 2008 at age 94, named the University of Nebraska as his sole beneficiary. His $3.5 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation – one of the largest estate gifts the foundation has ever received for scholarships – created scholarships for students on every NU campus.
Scholarship support is a top priority of the Campaign for Nebraska. If you'd like to help students, too, please consider giving online or contacting the Foundation's Lincoln, Omaha or Kearney offices at 800-432-3216.