The headlines called him Bill.
“Red Cross girl knew Bill”
“Bill is stunned by lucky break”
“Fame of Bill covers world”
The headlines followed the fund-raising campaign conducted in Spokane for Bill after he lost his sight and a hand in a German mine explosion. They shouted his family news for a few years – a marriage, the birth of a child – but then they forgot him, as the headlines do.
Bill and his family moved from Missouri to Long Island to Oklahoma to Virginia Beach, an entire life spread across the continent from Spokane. But what his story started here remains. The annual newspaper fund-raising campaign evolved into a 60-year tradition. A nearly $10 million tradition.
And the original war bonds donated for Bill in 1945, more than $18,000 in value, remain in a bank in Missouri. The statements show up every quarter, and the interest payments every year. Something small and steady in a life beset with struggle.
“When the parade passes by and the music stops, reality sets in pretty hard,” said Richard Schwenk, Bill’s son. “You’ve got to make the best of it. I think they both have – my mother and my father.”
On an April day in 1944, Cpl. William M. Schwenk stepped on a land mine in Aachen, Germany. A St. Louis truck driver serving in the Army, Schwenk lost a lot in that blast – his sight, his left hand and a portion of his right.
Recovering at a hospital in Wales, Schwenk met Janet Campbell, a Red Cross volunteer from Spokane. Campbell said she was struck by the fact that Schwenk was the morale builder on the hospital floor, despite his injuries.
When Campbell returned, she passed Bill’s story to The Spokesman-Review. The newspaper and Dr. David Cowen started the Bonds for Bill campaign, asking people to set aside war bonds to help Schwenk. In November of 1945, the newspaper started printing articles and appeals for help.
Their goal was $1,000.
Bill was recovering in a stateside hospital in Atlantic City when the campaign began. By the first days of December 1945, the $1,000 goal was long passed.
The Spokesman reported – in the chipper, awkward tone that characterized the writing about Bill’s injuries – that he was being given more than bonds.
“Then when Miss Campbell told him the campaign fund had passed the $5,000 mark and that Spokane’s Capt. Alfred Owen had just given him a seeing eye dog which he brought all the way from Germany, Bill was almost as much stunned as when the German mine exploded in his face.”
The dog – named Uwe von Holzheimer Eichwald – was a trained guard dog, a German shepherd. Owen had smuggled him out of the country.
By Dec. 16, more than $13,000 had poured in. Donations of a dime and donations of hundreds.
In a front-page story in his hometown paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bill said, “In the last two months, I’ve just started to eat by myself and I do a heck of a lot of that. I’ve also just started to shave without getting cut up too much.”
He said he liked to party, laugh and kid.
“I try to go about as though I can see,” Bill said.
The stories and the headlines always emphasized Bill’s happy nature, his upbeat attitude and his “courage in facing the future with his tragic impairment.”
“It will be the first time he won’t be able to see the tree and help trim it, for he is blind,” said a Dec. 21 story in the Spokesman. “But Cpl. Schwenk said: ‘Couldn’t be a merrier Christmas for me, bud. Gee whiz!’ “
Bill wrote a letter to Campbell on Dec. 15, 1945.
In a letter composed without punctuation or capitalization, like an e.e. cummings poem, he told her he had a new set of eyes and a “phony hand.” He wrote that he was looking for “a good little wife.” He wrote about the weather and the prospects of getting out of the hospital.
Buried toward the very end of the letter lay the only hint the reading public of Spokane ever saw of any darkness behind his smile.
“i have just started to learn to type how am i doing so far my morale is not so good at present how is your morale good i hope.”
And still the headlines came.
“Bill is delayed in Spokane trip”
“Blind veteran finds his bride”
“Spokane’s Bill now a father”
From 1947 to 1949, Spokane readers learned that the Bonds for Bill campaign surpassed $18,000, and that the newspaper had begun making a fund-raising campaign an annual event – the seed that grew over 60 years into The Christmas Fund.
They learned that Uwe, the dog smuggled out of Germany, had hostility issues. Uwe growled at Bill’s family and friends, and once took the leg off a neighboring dog. When Bill went to the Seeing Eye dog school in Morristown, N.Y., to pick up Uwe’s replacement, he met the woman who would change his life.
“Bill’s bride, Miss Irene Cammer of Brooklyn, N.Y., an attractive brunette, is also blind, having lost her sight two years ago,” the Spokesman reported.
Two years later, Bill and Irene had Richard.
Bill’s final Spokane headline came Sept. 13, 1949.
“Hero city aided pays visit here”
A friend had driven him across the country. Bill saw Campbell and Dr. Cowen, and stopped at the newspaper.
“Bill visited The Spokesman-Review office yesterday and if you didn’t know he was blind you wouldn’t guess it,” read the story. “He is a man who weighs 156 pounds, stands erect, is nicely groomed and wears almost a continual smile. The German mine may have taken its tragic toll of him physically, but it did nothing to his spirit. He makes light of his infirmity and is a tonic for everybody with both eyes and hands.”
And that’s when the headlines faded away.
When, in Richard Schwenk’s words, the parades stopped.
Bill and Irene Campbell settled for a while in Ferguson, Mo., and Bill tried a variety of jobs without success.
He attempted to open a beverage delivery business. He worked for a while weaving rugs from home. He opened a newsstand near the post office, but found that people constantly stole his merchandise, Richard Schwenk said.
Still, he insisted on being as self-sufficient as possible. Richard Schwenk remembers his father riding home on the bus with grocery bags, and later walking to the store with his father and pulling the groceries home in a wagon.
The family moved to Long Island, and kept growing, with the birth of Michael and Barbara. It was a struggle to get by, and Richard Schwenk says the family was always aware of the help provided by the Bonds for Bill fund.
“His pension and his sole income for the family was based on a corporal’s pay per month,” he said. “That’s where the fund really came in.”
Bill had a few different Seeing Eye dogs after Uwe, the aggressive German guard dog. Richard Schwenk remembers Murka best – an all-black German shepherd that was his father’s companion for years.
Richard and his father went together to have the dog euthanized in the mid-1970s.
“And that was the last one,” Richard said. “He said, ‘Nope. Not going to do this anymore.’ “
Bill became skilled at home repair – carpentry, painting, tile work. He once remodeled his entire basement.
On projects, “he became the foreman and the teacher,” Richard Schwenk said.
Richard entered the Navy in 1976, and Bill and Irene moved from Long Island to Yukon, Okla., to be near their daughter, Barbara. Barbara died in 1987.
They lived there for years, moving to Virginia Beach to be near Richard when he retired.
These days, Bill and Irene live a quiet life in their own home. He’s 91, and she is 83. They won’t talk to reporters about the old days, and say they just want to be left alone.
Irene enjoys listening to the Home Shopping Network – “That’s her avenue out,” Richard said – and Bill likes to listen to Rush Limbaugh and political talk shows on the radio.
Back in Spokane, the altruism that was reflected in the Bonds for Bill drive has had a similarly long life. The Spokesman-Review’s Christmas Fund has raised $9.6 million in its 60 years. This year, it will try to bring in $485,000.
The proceeds from that very first fund drive, meanwhile, remain in a bank account where Bill first put them. Every three months, a statement shows up.
“It’s a legacy that spans 60 years and beyond,” said Richard Schwenk.
Schwenk said he admires his parents for the way they persevered in the face of difficulties. They still live in their own home, and “absolutely refuse” to consider any other living arrangements.
“I guess the message is tenacity,” Richard Schwenk said. “The spirit never, ever to give up.”
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