I had two connections with Chris Schenkel. I went to Wawasee High School, where one of my classmates was John Schenkel, Chris’ son. John and I had been on the golf team together and were in a lot of the same classes. I had been to the Schenkel’s house on Lake Tippecanoe a couple of times and had met Chris there. Of course, we knew John had a famous father, with the distinctive baritone voice from all the many sporting events on television. But at the house, he was just John’s dad.
Chris Schenkel was active in the Wawasee area, and even served as emcee for the Sesquicentennial parade in my hometown of Milford the summer I interned for the Milford Mail-Journal. I snapped a picture for the paper and had a chance for a quick conversation to catch up and talk about what John was doing. (We were both at Purdue, but never really crossed paths).
It wasn’t until I started at the Herald-Press that I learned that Chris Schenkel was a Huntington County native from Bippus. I also learned that Schenkel kept tabs on what was happening in his hometown, and would occasionally call the newspaper to talk to editor Mike Perkins. If you were lucky enough to take the newsroom call, the voice on the other end of the phone was easily recognized, even before you heard, “This is Chris Schenkel.” There were a couple of times I was the one to pick up the phone, and took the opportunity to again get in a quick chat before I passed the call on to Mike.
Chris Schenkel died in 2005 and made his final trip back to Huntington for his funeral at SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church and burial in his hometown of Bippus.
We would cover the funeral, of course, but the event would push the newspaper’s deadline. It was expected that a number of celebrities would attend from the worlds of sports, television, and many other areas where Schenkel had made an impact.
It really wasn’t my beat, but I was given the honor of writing the story on the funeral. I knew it was a big ask because the hometown coverage of a famous individual’s funeral is bound to garner extra attention in the immediate future and for lasting legacy. I never really got nervous covering big events, but this one had me shaking a bit.
It’s not easy trying to get interviews at a funeral. It’s even harder when there are celebrities who you probably should get a comment from.
The first I saw was Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and one of the biggest names in racing. He was also a longtime friend of Chris Schenkel. He would be a good interview get. I just went for it. I approached George quickly, but tried not to be in a rush, wanting to respect the solemnity of the moment. Tony George could not have been nicer in answering a couple of questions, giving me some very heart-felt quotes that became prominent in my story.
Then I saw my old high school friend who had the famous father, but who was just John’s dad to us. John and I hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, and he was in the midst of perhaps the saddest day of his life, but we spotted one another and shared a hug. He was gracious enough to give me a short, but incredibly eloquent interview.
Following the funeral, I had to quickly get back to the newsroom to write my story. It wasn’t long, but I knew I needed to make it special. That came from the quotes from John and Tony George, plus those who spoke during the service. They provided the fabric and I only had to sew it all together.
It turned out to be a decent story. I was proud of it and hope that I did justice to the family and to the legacy of Chris Schenkel.
As a postscript, I was one of the founding members of the organization Huntington County Honors in 2014. We select individuals with Huntington connections to recognize for their achievements. Chris Schenkel was a no-brainer to be included in our inaugural class of honorees in 2016.
John was the closest living relative of Chris Schenkel, and I knew that John still lived in the North Webster area. I was able to get ahold of him, and once again renew a friendship that dated back to 1980. John was more than honored to represent his father at the ceremony, and it was a nice time to see him once again.