By Ed Staskus
Hal Schaser was born in July 1931, in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother Agnes and his father Mathias were Saxons from Transylvania, where they married in 1929. His father was a minister’s son, and his mother was a local beauty. The Great Depression was making a hard life after the Great War harder. They emigrated to the United States. Baby Hal got free passage traveling unseen in his mother’s belly.
In time three more children rounded out the family, his younger brother Willie, and younger stepsisters Suzanne and Joanne. The family dog was the youngest and went by Buddy. He was everybody’s friend.
“My grandparents got married in the town of Hamlish in Romania, which Transylvania was a part of,” said Vanessa, Hal’s daughter. “One of my great grandfathers was a minister who kept horses and grew grapes for wine.” The church was built for worship and battle both, the bastions protection against marauding foreign armies. “My other great grandfather was the local banker.” Their children were second cousins. The banker bought wine from the minister for his table.
Hal attended Cleveland public schools, graduating from East Technical in 1949. He acted in historical pageants while in high school and through the 1950s was often seen on stage at Karamu and the Chagrin Little Theater. “It was how I met gals,” he said. He met his wife-to-be at Karamu.
“The first thing I noticed was that he looked like Paul Newman,” Terese Stasas said. “I liked that right away.”
Mathias Schaser opened a corner grocery store on the near west side of Cleveland. Two years later, two days after the birth of his second son, he was robbed and shot by two young stick-up men. He was pulling overtime after visiting his wife and newborn. “You mustn’t stay here any longer,” Agnes told him. “You go back to the store. We will need to have more money now.”
He was pronounced dead the next day in the same hospital where his wife was still nursing their son. Twenty-three years later the two by now middle-aged stick-up men were paroled from the Ohio State Penitentiary.
“I taught my sons to be forgiving, not bitter,” Agnes said in 1955. “We got along all right. They started delivering newspapers when they were ten. They finished high school, although they always worked at a bakery and other places around the neighborhood. I have a happy life with my children. I hope those two men can find jobs and become good citizens.”
She remarried after her first husband’s murder, but her second husband died of a heart attack a few years later. She never married again, raising four children on her own, mostly on a Mother’s Pension, which was $90.00 a month.
“My pop’s stepfather passed on when he was 7 years old,” Vanessa said. “His mother was a devout Lutheran and she instilled in them Christian values, which our pop carried with him all his life. He may not have been religious all his life, but he knew his Bible. He drove his mother to church every Sunday until the day she died.”
“He grew up a true city kid through and through,” said Matt, Hal’s son. “He built and raced in the soap box derby, walked with friends to baseball games at League Park, and trained and sparred at his local gym.”
“He was no dead-end kid, though,” Vanessa said. “When violin lessons were ordered by his mother, he endured them with grace.” Grown up he put the violin down and took up the guitar, playing the backbeat tunes Cleveland’s DJ the Moon Dog was making popular.
Hal survived the East Ohio Gas explosion in their neighborhood in October 1944, when a tank containing liquid natural gas equivalent to 90 million cubic feet blew up, setting off the most disastrous fire in Cleveland’s history. Hundreds of homes churches and businesses were engulfed by a tidal wave of fire. His mother saved their house, a mile away from the blast, by spraying it with a garden hose until the water pressure gave out.
“I was walking home from school and the blast almost knocked me off my feet,” he said. “It was like all at once the sky blew up with thunder balls.” Buddy ran inside and stayed in the basement for a week.
Hal boxed as a teenager, training at gyms on the near east side, reaching the finals in his class at the Golden Gloves tournament held at the Cleveland Arena. He served in the United States Army during the Korean War as an artilleryman in a front-line battalion and later as a spotter. “Spotting was a suicide mission,” one of his friends who fought in the Vietnam War said. “If the other guys didn’t get you, your own guys would. How he made it home alive, I don’t know.”
During one mortar and howitzer firefight his radioman was wounded. He carried him to safety. He had a grudging respect for the courage of Chinese soldiers. “No matter what we hit them with, they always kept coming,” he said. “We couldn’t kill the son-of-a-guns fast enough.”
He gave up fighting after coming home, going to work for Palmer Bearings, working closely with the city’s steel and automobile industries. He often lunched with clients at the Theatrical on Short Vincent, meeting many city leaders, celebrities, businessmen, and gangsters.
“He became Vice President of Sales where his smile and enthusiasm for life and helping others was his formula for becoming a success,” Vanessa said. “Honesty and integrity led his work, something that isn’t always easy for a salesman, but it was natural to him.”
Hal married Terese Stasas in 1959. The couple had two children, Vanessa and Matt, raising them in the Indian Hills neighborhood near South Euclid. Their backyard was the woods of the Euclid Creek Reservation. “Our mom was a ballerina, an artist, and a chef, and our pop was a boxer, a fine ice skater, and a salesman,” Vanessa said. “I think it must have been their sense of hope and freedom that attracted them to one another.”
“He loved to read,” Matt said. “He had his favorite chair in the living room and read classics and plays after dinner. He read the newspaper in the morning.”
His other great love, besides his family, was golf. He always traveled with clubs in his car trunk. He played with clients after work and friends on teams in city leagues. He played courses all over Ohio. Whenever he had the chance, he took short vacations to play famous links nationwide.
“Good golf depends on strength of mind and a clean character,” he said. He didn’t shortchange the front nine or back nine. He didn’t shortchange himself.
Hal wasn’t entirely a religious man, although he was. He had his reasons, among them the twists and turns of the game. “My prayers were never answered on golf courses,” he explained. One lesson about the divine, however, stood him in good stead. Whenever he was on a fairway and got caught in a lightning storm, he held his 1-iron up in the air.
“Not even God can hit a 1-iron,” he said.
He never stopped walking golf courses, even when he played two rounds, never riding a cart, well into his 80s. “Our pop golfed ever since I knew him,” Vanessa said. “Oh, did he golf. He played with a red ball when it snowed. He loved being with people and golfing with his friends. Sometimes mom said he loved golf more than he loved us.”
He lived alone after his wife divorced him, taking their kids with her, although he never left his children or grandchildren behind. It wasn’t any back street girl that came between husband and wife. It was Hal’s career and the golf monkey on his back. After becoming a single man again, he ate like a buck private and stayed fit into his later years. He lived in Euclid and afterwards for 25 years in Lakewood, across the street from St. Ed’s High School.
“I always loved my kids, no matter what,” he said.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election Hal fell in love with Donald Trump. He started wearing a veteran’s cap, saying bad things about immigrants, denigrating blacks and Jews, and talking down anybody young who demonstrated against anything. He decried the federal government as a conspiratorial deep state and stuck his fork in the scrambled eggs of QAnon.
He believed the new boss man was battling a cabal of Democratic Party pedophiles and only he could get the job done. Only the President was dirty enough to do the dirty work, no matter that POTUS didn’t know one end of a pop gun from another, since he thought khaki was for suckers whenever target practice was mentioned.
He watched Tucker Carlson on FOX. He reckoned the newsman’s idea of unvaccinated people getting fake vaccine cards to avoid mandates was a good idea. “Buying a fake vaccination card is an act of desperation by decent, law-abiding Americans who have been forced into a corner by tyrants,” the FOX man said. Hal refused to be vaccinated the first time, the second time, and didn’t even bother thinking about the booster shot. He didn’t know where to get a bogus card. He called Tucker Carlson, but the line was busy. He left a message, although he never heard back from America’s Voice of Grievance.
Hal put his golf clubs away and kept them away, while POTUS went golfing in Scotland. Saving America from itself became his passion. It was a fire that burnt bright.
When Rush Limbaugh died from lung cancer, after smoking stogies for decades and sounding off that cancer was a notion, and Dan Bongino took over, he stopped listening to Rush and started listening to Dan. When Rush had said wearing a mask to protect society from COVID was a conspiracy against the freedom-loving and God-fearing, Hal paid attention and never wore a mask, unless the grocery he was trying to get into denied him entry without one. An empty stomach usually trumps ideology. When Dan took up the mantra that the mask was Democratic BS, he gave Dan a thumbs up, but didn’t stop going masked man grocery shopping.
“My brother and I asked him to wear a mask every time we saw him,” Vanessa said. They asked him to get vaccinated, but he wouldn’t do it. He said there was something untrustworthy about the vaccines. He had heard Bill Gates was putting nefarious things into the shots.
“I told him he had to wear a mask when visiting the kids, or he couldn’t visit them,” Matt said.
Whether they knew it or not the right-wing radio poohbahs Hal listened to were playing with fire. Ranting and raving about unwed mothers and welfare cheats and the half-dozen voters who cheated is one thing. Ranting and raving about pandemics is another thing. It can be hazardous to life and limb conflating the two. Unwed mothers are not nearly as dangerous as man-eating viruses.
“I’m Mr. Anti-Vax,” Marc Bernier told the listeners of his talk radio program. After the first vaccines were approved, he declared the federal government and the CDC were “acting like Nazis” in urging people to get vaccinated. The Nazis rolled over in their graves and died laughing. Six months later the whacky broadcaster died of COVID. So did Jimmy DeYoung, a nationally syndicated Christian radio preacher, and Dick Farrel, a talking head for Newsmax TV.
They lived by crying wolf, screaming their lungs out, and died when they couldn’t breathe anymore.
Hal played with fire for almost two years. He got burnt towards the end of the year and by the morning after New Year’s Day could barely walk. Vanessa and Matt tried for a week after Christmas to get him to go to Fairview Hospital, but he refused. He said he felt fine, even though he looked terrible. He had a kitchen cabinet full of supplements snake oilers had been selling him to combat COVID, but the mystery pills had suddenly lost their magic.
Matt called 911 the day after New Year’s and paramedics took Hal to Fairview Hospital. Only one person at a time once a day could visit him. When Vanessa or Matt visited him, they had to wear bio-hazard bunny suits and masks. One day Hal felt good, and the next day felt bad. He complained about being brainwashed. He tried to walk out. He refused to take his medication. The nurses gave it to their patient, anyway, making sure he took it. One day after three weeks in the hospital he said he was feeling terrific. The next day he suffered a stroke and died three days later.
Two weeks later a small memorial service was held for him in the Rocky River Memorial Hall. His grandson played a French children’s song on the baby grand piano and his granddaughter played “Amazing Grace.” A bugler played “Taps.”
Vanessa and Matt said a few words.
“He supported animal charities, valued his friends, and loved his children and grandchildren, watching them laugh and enjoying their creativity and joy,” Vanessa said. “I’ll never forget an early childhood memory of my feet on top of his while we waltzed to records in the living room.”
Bob his Vietnam War friend said a few words, too. “He was part of our group at McDonald’s for coffee every morning. He was the only Republican among us, so there were plenty of disagreements, but he was a great guy, the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. They don’t make them like Hal anymore.”
The next day his golfing buddies saluted him with their 1-irons held high to Heaven. Nobody got struck by lightning. Hal was watching over them.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”