David Tod Schmitt, 1924-2014

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David Schmitt as a student at New Canaan High School, c. 1940.

David T. Schmitt died on Saturday, March 22, 2014, after a long illness.  He was born on July 8, 1924 in Norwalk, Connecticut, the fifth son of Carl and Gertrude Schmitt.

At the age of eighteen, while still in high school, he was drafted into the U. S. Army, beginning his service in March 1943 as a member of the legendary 10th Mountain Division (the “ski troops”).  After a year and a half of training in the mountains of Colorado, he served in Italy along with his brother Peter as a Technical Sergeant (Communications) in the Headquarters Division, seeing combat in the Italian campaign of 1944-45.  

In April 1953 he married Louise Stitt; they would have eight children.  During the 1960s he worked alongside his brother John at Thomas More School, a Catholic boys’ boarding school in Harrisville, New Hampshire.  After the school closed in 1971, he moved his family to Canaan, Connecticut, where he lived the rest of his life.  

David Schmitt is remembered by his family and friends as a loving, humble, and wise man.   In his last years he showed remarkable patience and cheerfulness in the face of illness and the loss of his beloved wife, Louise.  

His funeral mass was celebrated by his son, Rev. Thomas Schmitt, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Canaan on March 26.  He is survived by his daughter and six sons, as well as his sister, five of his brothers, and numerous grandchildren.  His was preceded in death by his wife of over 50 years, and son David, Jr., who died in 2007.

A number of years ago he wrote down some recollections of his father and of his life growing up in a family of ten children in Silvermine, Connecticut.  We will be highlighting these stories here in the next few weeks.  A particularly vivid memory concerning himself and his father he called “Bear in the Coal  Bin.”

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David (second from left) and his brothers Peter, Jacob, John and Carl, Jr., about the time of “Bear in the Coal Bin” took place.

When I was about six it was my job in the family to get the coal from the separate cellar (in the hillside) where the coal bin was located. You had to go out the front door and around the side of the house to get there.  I was afraid of that cellar because I was afraid of the dark, and the coal bin was always dark because there was no light bulb in there.  The question was, was I more afraid of Dad’s spanking for disobeying, or the dark–it was clearly a case of which was the worse! Besides, I was sure there were bears in the coal-bin.

So I hesitated in getting the coal—no one in the family knew why.  I guess they thought I was just lazy; they had no reason to think otherwise.  I used to fill the scuttle half-full at a time because otherwise it was too heavy for me to get it off the ground to carry.

One day it was about noon and mother was still begging me to please “get the coal.”  When Dad came home from his studio for supper, I made the mistake of letting him hear Mom still asking me to “get the coal.”  He didn’t tolerate disobedience, and he taught me right then and there that Fathers should be feared much more than either imaginary bears or the dark.  I got the worse licking I ever got from him!  Later I found myself getting the coal in the dark, bears and all.  I was no longer afraid of the dark or the bears—it was amazing!

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David (left) and his brother Jacob, 1928.

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Wisdom on Wednesdays—Destiny and death

“Man is only happy in cooperating with his individual destiny. All men are destined to perfect virtue.
Some men are destined to achieve virtue before death.
Some are destined to achieve it after death.
It is a special mark of providence to have the opportunity of complete humility before death. The longer before death it is—the greater the mark of God’s love.”
(October 19, 1929)

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Gertrude, pastel on paper, c. 1918, 20 x 15 in.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Nothing to lose in the world

“The minute a man has something to lose in the world is he enslaved.
“Or to put it better, when one decides he has nothing to lose he can be true and charitable.
“St. Joseph failed quite miserably to live up to even the lowest standards of conduct prescribed for an American Christian family head.”  (1962)

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The Holy Family in Joseph’s Workshop, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.
The Carl Schmitt Foundation; gift of the estate of William J. Ryan.

The Schmitt family in France, 1926-27

Arriving in Paris before dawn on July 26, 1926, Carl Schmitt, as many artists before and since, was exuberant. “Paris is a wonderful city,” he wrote his brother Robert that same day. “The gardens and even forests within the city are astoundingly beautiful when first seen (and after).”  He was staying at the Hotel St. James on the Rue de Rivoli, in the heart of the historic city.  “My balcony overlooks the Tuileries gardens with the Orleans station directly opposite; across the Seine and to the left stretches the great mass of the Louvre.”  His first day in Paris was taken up with exploring the great museum and its artistic treasures.  “I looked at every picture there the other day and enjoyed the thousands of Americans doing the same.”

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Schmitt’s snapshot of the interior of Chartres cathedral.
“The soul should be like a perfectly transparent window,” he wrote in his studio notebook in December, 1928, “But the imagination should be like the lancet over the altar at Chartres.”

Schmitt had dreamed of settling in Europe since his first trip there in 1914.  He was particularly drawn to Dalmatia and the Adriatic coast, where, as he later related to the Catholic activist and writer Peter Maurin, “people still combine cult, that is to say liturgy, with culture, that is to say literature, with cultivation, that is to say agriculture.”

After leaving the region and before coming to Paris, however, he informed Robert that “Dalmatia would never do for the family.”  Schmitt had long venerated Gothic art and architecture, calling the cathedral at Chartres “that marvel of marvels,” its exterior figures and the decorations of its portals “sculpture at its highest.”  He went on to say that “France is certainly beautiful and I feel very much at home here, and I am sure it is best for family for a long stay.”

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Gertrude Schmitt, left, with her six boys and a friend, on the ship to France, October, 1926.

In August, Schmitt secured a house in the town of Chartres, not far from its great cathedral.  His wife Gertrude, traveling with their six children, joined him there in early October.  Life in the little village surrounding the great church, however, turned out be less than ideal.  A letter to his brother shortly after Gertrude’s arrival was sober: “Concerning life here: The disadvantages just about outweigh the advantages.  It is about as dark as a winter’s twilight in Silvermine—all day.  So painting except in monochrome is out of the question, and as far as ‘art’ is concerned I was much better off in Silvermine.”  As was characteristic of him, Schmitt found humor in his unhappy circumstances, noting that the new maid “is practically worthless, but we expect to at least give her a start in the world so she can be equipped for life’s struggle.”

But the condition of his family was far from humorous.  “The children have all been sick of fever and bronchitis as well as myself,” he wrote to Robert on New Year’s Eve.  “They were all in bed a week and I have just gotten up today for the first time.  You can imagine how much work for Gertrude, the maid being worthless practically.”  He admitted, reluctantly, that it was best to come home.  “I dread the thought of moving again and I dread the thought of staying another day . . . I do not think it will be for long, however, as we expect to come home the last of April.”

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Gertrude, the boys, and the maid, outside their house in Chartres, 1927.

A month later things had improved considerably.  Schmitt was working hard at a commission and “six small canvasses.”  The children, recovered both from their sickness and the local schools, were now taught by a governess “who takes perfect care of them and is very conscientious.  Today was another beautiful day—like spring—and we are having our first favorable reaction.  The neighbors are pruning their fruit trees and getting gardens ready, and people on the streets are beginning to look cheerful again.”

By this time Schmitt had already booked passage for his family back to America.  It would be ten years before Schmitt would again venture to bring his family to Europe.  They set out for Italy and lived there for a time, but his dreams of making it their permanent home would be dashed, this time by the onset of World War II.  After settling in Silvermine for good, Schmitt never lost his love for Europe, seeing it as “an island of the Fine Arts; the locus of the full liberation of the imagination.”

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A Street in Chartres, oil on canvas, 30 x 25, c. 1937

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The failure of “success”—the success of “failure”

“Prosperity as an ideal (the philosophy of cunning) is sterile.  An institution, a society, or an individual based upon it, is doomed, because it contains not in itself either the seed of birth or rebirth.  Its appeal lies in the fact that while it lasts it succeeds perfectly.”  (October 1929)

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A Christening Party at Chartres, oil on canvas, 1928, 45 x 54 in.
Inspired by Schmitt’s stay in Chartres 1926-27, this painting was first exhibited at the twenty-seventh Carnegie International exhibition, October—December 1928.  A reviewer called it a “golden gaiety,” “one of those pictures which make you long to be in the place depicted.”