Robert Wood Schmitt, 1919-2018

Robert W. Schmitt, Carl and Gertrude Schmitt’s eldest son, died peacefully Sunday, July 29, 2018, just months shy of his 99th birthday.  From his youth until his death surrounded by family in the home of his nephew in Orange, his encyclopedic memory held a trove of poems, songs, histories, and every word of the catechism his father taught him on Sundays when he was a boy.  (This photo was taken by Jill Chessman at the St. Mary Coffee Hour)

Robert was born on October 10, 1919, in Norwalk, Connecticut.  Aside from some years in Chartres and Rome, he grew up in Silvermine. Excelling in all subjects, he graduated from New Canaan High School and earned a BA in English from New York University, during which time he also worked to support the family as a draftsman at Sikorsky and Chance-Vought Aircraft in Stratford, Connecticut.  After a short stint designing aircraft with Chance-Vought in Texas, he returned to Silvermine to work in the Wilton offices of architects F. Nelson Breed, Lynedon Eaton, and Johnson Lee of New Canaan, respectively, as a draftsman specializing in colonial-style architecture.  He freelanced his own projects thereafter, notably the houses built for his brothers as they each left home to start their own families in the “Schmittville” section of Silvermine.

Robert with his favorite uncle, his father’s brother Robert, known to the family as “Uncle Hudda.” A founding member of the Silvermine Guild, and an artist in his own right, Hudda was a master carver of frames that now grace many paintings of his brother and other Silvermine artists.

Taught by his uncle Robert, he played the flute and piccolo for ensembles in the area including the Norwalk and Stamford symphony orchestras and the Greenwich Philharmonia. His sonorous baritone graced many local choirs, most recently those at St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan, and St. Mary Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he and his devoted sister Gertrude were seen without fail each Sunday.

An avid sailor, he enjoyed boating with his brothers, coin collecting, and making wine from his own vineyard. As a founding board member of the Carl Schmitt Foundation and “family mythologist,” Robert worked to preserve and advance the legacy of his father’s remarkable art and thought.

Robert’s unfailing kindness, solemn wit, and beautiful baritone voice will be greatly missed by his sister Gertrude of Silvermine, brothers Jacob of Delaware, Carl of Washington, D.C., the Rev. Christopher Schmitt of Texas, and several score nephews and nieces to the great and great-great generations. Grateful and peaceful to the last, he died as he lived, a gentleman through and through. He is preceded in death by brothers Peter, Austin, Michael, David, and John.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated Friday, August 3, at 10:00 am in St. Mary Church, 669 West Avenue, Norwalk. Connecticut.  Interment will follow in St. John Cemetery, Norwalk.

Robert, two months old, with his Mother Gertrude.

Friends may call Thursday, August 2, from 4:00 to 8:00 pm at Collins Funeral Home, 92 East Avenue, Norwalk.  Memorial contributions can be made to The Carl Schmitt Foundation, 30 Borglum Rd, Wilton, Connecticut.

 

This reminiscence by his late brother, David, pays tribute to his gentleness, intelligence, and courage, qualities evident to everyone who knew him.

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Bobby Schmitt, c. 1925

My oldest brother’s name is Bobby. He was born first and is the gentlest, most considerate and responsible of all the brothers. I suppose that has a lot to do with what has always been expected of him. Usually, the eldest in a big family is expected to look after and help care for all the rest of the little urchins that follow along; it’s his unwritten destiny and usually works out that way in most families.

Bobby is not only conscientious, but he is very smart and also an excellent teacher and applied psychologist through necessity. He is a genius at simplifying the problem and applying the common denominator. He excelled in mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, algebra and everything else for that matter. Every year he would win the ten dollar gold piece in grammar school. The only year he didn’t win was because the poor girl who always rated second was given the award because the school officials “wanted to be fair,” or political, about it.

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Robert (far left) and his siblings Michael, John, Jacob, Christopher, Gertrude, and Austin, in the garden at Silvermine, c. 1935.

Bobby was also courageous. Even though he was gentle and never fought, that didn’t stop him when he was called upon for leadership. Once when we were teenagers out on Long Island Sound in a sail boat, a big storm came up. We all but capsized when the first squall line hit us. I was five years younger than he and was scared stiff. But I was much impressed and very thankful when Bobby took charge and put us all to work: donning life jackets, stripping the sails, and heaving to into the fierce wind. We weathered the worst of it and when the Coast Guard asked us if we needed assistance, we thanked them and let them know “everything was under control,” thanks to our skipper.

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Norwalk Harbor, pastel on paper, 1910, 7 x 13 in.

Another time just the opposite happened. We were becalmed and spent a pleasant summer night drifting across Long Island Sound. I can still hear the slapping of the halyards against the mast as the boat rocked back and forth with each swell all night long. In the morning we were perilously close to the rocky shore of Long Island but were very thankful for a tow by the Coast Guard back to Norwalk Harbor and our mooring and some of the concerned parents I might add.

Bobby’s basic philosophy (per forsa) was: “Chi va piano, va sano et chi va sano ve lantorno”: “Who goes softly, goes sanely, and who goes sanely goes a long way.”

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Robert, oil on board, c. 1945, 12 x 10 in.
After working six full days as a draftsman for the war effort, Robert would would take the bus on Sundays to Winnipauk (northeast Norwalk), where his mother would pick him up. The exhaustion of his long hours at work shows in his face. Perhaps due to these circumstances, his father never finished the portrait.

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Christmas in Silvermine

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A woodblock print by Carl Schmitt for a Christmas card commissioned in the 1920s.

Carl Schmitt’s late son David has left us a wonderful series of reminiscences about his growing up in Silvermine.  As David remembers it, Christmas can bring out the best (and worst) in children of a large family.

One Christmas when I was about seven dad and mother bought me a present much better than I anticipated. Dad called my name and I stepped forward and he handed me a large box attractively wrapped. “To David from Mother and Dad.” I tore it open and inside was a large pair of brown hunting boots with a jackknife in a leather pocket on the left side of the left boot. I was overwhelmed. I put the boots on and paraded around the house upstairs and down all the rest of Christmas day. I could see nothing but those two boots.

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Michael, pastel on paper, 1935

Unfortunately, my brother Mike had gotten a model airplane kit—the kind one puts together from balsa wood and covers with Japanese tissue paper, then paints to match the real airplane. It actually flew and took a lot of work to build. Late in the afternoon, just before supper, I was coming down the stairs, and of course Michael was assembling his plane right at the foot of the stairs. You guessed it, the inevitable happened; my big boot went “crunch” right in the middle of his plane and completely demolished it. It was a case of the inevitable force meeting the immovable object.

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Carl Schmitt sons ((left to right) Peter, Jacob, Michael, John, David, and Austin, c. 1932.

Mike wanted to take it out on my hide but he didn’t, remarkably, because I pointed out that after all that wasn’t the best place to put his plane together. Naturally, he didn’t relish hearing my defense. It was a case of arrogance vs. pride which most kids excel in. I still don’t remember how the situation was resolved short of parental arbitration and both of us eating a little crow.

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Christmas card (c. 1925) for John Kenneth Byard, a friend and patron of Schmitt in the 1920s who later became a well-known antiques dealer.

Brothers in arms: Peter and David Schmitt in Italy, 1945—Part 2

David, oil on canvas, 1942.
According to David’s daughter Cathy, Carl Schmitt painted this portrait of his son shortly before he left home in January, 1943, to remember him in case he never came back.

Carl Schmitt’s sons Peter and David served with the famed 10th Mountain Division of the 86th Infantry in the Italian Campaign of 1945.  In Part I we met the boys and their comrade Russell Hunt as they faced the challenges of life on the front lines.  In this installment we hear stories of the Italian Resistance against the German army and reaction to the death of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in April, 1945.

The three New Canaan men landed at Naples on December 24, 1944, the 86th being the first of the 10th Division regiments to arrive in Italy.  On Christmas Day they were in box cars, headed for Leghorn, and they went right into the line at Pisa.  The Germans were starting a push in Sercio Valley, and the 92nd Division needed support. The Regiment then returned to Leghorn for further training (“We had to learn about mines,” Peter Schmitt explained), after which it was ordered to San Marcello.

“That was the first time we were actually fighting,” Hunt said. “I was always sending orders. A messenger would bring them up. They were anything that had to go to another battalion, orders to move or fall back, or about supplies . . . ” San Marcello, he called “just a mountain town — but it wasn’t touched by shells or bombs, because the people paid a ransom to the Germans.” Snow was on the heights and up there they were often on skis, while down below it was usually raining, and everywhere “the mountains were all shot up, the trees all blasted to pieces.”

Men of the 10th Mountain Division march across the snow with Mt. Belvedere n the background, late winter 1945.

They were at San Marcello throughout February. The Schmitts used to visit with the local peasants, and Peter did a lot of interpreting for the Army.  Northern Italy was terrifically anti-fascistic.  The partisans, who were very efficient, worked under U. S. Army orders and pay.  Dressed in civilian clothes and provided with the proper papers, they would go through the German lines at night and bring back information.  “I went up to a little town with the partisans,” David remem­bered, “and I saw their reports, pointing out machine gun nests, telling how many trucks the Germans were moving in — they were very complete.”

He nodded his head in affirmation. After the surrender of Italy, the Germans took out slave labor, the boys said.  They wanted to send the young men into Germany.  Naturally, the young men didn’t want to go, so they would hide.  The Germans usually killed some member of their family, a wife or a father or mother. Then there was the case of the man who wanted to side with Badoglio ; so he laid down his arms and deserted the Fascist Army.  The Germans, who had the Italian Army lists, would go to the homes of all such people and bum them down.  The Italians, against whom these reprisals were made, were possessed with one idea: they devoted their time to kicking out the Germans.

Peter (left) and David Schmitt as members of the 10th Mountain division training in Colorado, 1944.

On February 19th began the drive to take Mt. Belvedere.  By the 25th, this mountain, which had been taken and lost several times, was captured.  Successive peaks were taken the first two weeks in March, with the enemy entrenched in the high spots and the fighting severe.  The little terraced gardens that Italians make up the side of a mountain were German machine gun nests, overlooking the ap­proaches.  The big Allied push started on April 14th, English, Australians, Brazilians and Americans.  Coming down the last peaks of the Apennines into the Po Valley, the 10th Division cut the main highway into Bologna, thus enabling other units to capture the city.  Peter Schmitt said the valley was like a basin, and sketched a map in a broad oval shape divided by the main road running north and wt across on a shallow diagonal by the river flowing northeast.

‘The first day going up the valley, we covered a terrific distance,” Hunt said. “The Germans were moving back as fast as they could go, — they left everything they had behind them.  But the river crossing was very hard; they were ready for us there.”

Men of the 10th Mountain Division unload supplies after crossing the Po River near San Benedetto, Italy, April 1945.

The Po is about half a mile wide. Hunt crossed on a duck, a boat on wheels which carries two jeeps and twenty men.  Shells were coming over all the time, he said, and two men with him were hit.  Peter Schmitt said German AA guns were putting time bursts over the river.  “That’s what got most of the guys in boats,” he said.

Beyond the Po, there wasn’t much fighting.  “We went up to Verona and the big, snow-capped peaks of the Alps were all around us,” he went on.  “We were making a lunge toward Brenner Pass, and they decided to go by Lake Garda, pummeling the main road.”  On this Lake was located Mussolini’s villa, near which he was captured by partisans and taken to Milan to be executed.  In Verona, the boys heard church bells tolling, and got word of his death from the local people.

Peter in his full winter gear training in Colorado, 1944.

To be continued . . .

Brothers in arms: Peter and David Schmitt in Italy, 1945—Part 1

Peter (left) and David Schmitt as members of the 10th Mountain Division during training in Colorado for their deployment overseas, 1944.

Shortly after close of World War II, Peter Schmitt and his brother David were interviewed for a book, New Canaan War Veterans Speak, published by the New Canaan Historical Society, from which this excerpt is taken.  Both brothers were proud of their service in the Italian campaign of 1944-45 as members of the fabled 10th Mountain Division of the U. S. Army’s 86th Infantry.  Their account was combined with that of their buddy and fellow New Canaan resident Russell Hunt, who, with the Schmitt brothers, was a technical officer assigned to the headquarters of the 86th Infantry.  The interview shows the brothers’ unassuming bravery as well as their thoughtfulness and personal integrity in the face of the brutality of war.

T/ 5 Russell Woolston Hunt and T/ 4 Peter Carl Schmitt went into the Army in January, 1943, and were assigned to HQ Co., 86th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division. Peter Schmitt’s brother, T/4 David Tod Schmitt, joined the same outfit the following March. The three men were in the entire North Italy action when the Division spearheaded from San Marcello across the high peaks of the Apennines and up through Po River Valley to Lake Garda in the foothills of the Alps.

Peter and David Schmitt once lived in Italy, know the language, and used to talk to the peasants in the towns where they were stationed. David defined the plight of the people as “a question of fear and poverty. Unless you understand poverty . . . ” he said, and his voice trailed off, implying how difficult it is for us to picture the hard reality of life over there. Peter thought we had a terrific responsibility in Italy. “After all, we’ve left a trail of destruction behind us,” he said.

Peter Schmitt is twenty-three and David is twenty-one. Both have high cheek bones and rounded faces. Peter is the darker of the two, with almost black hair and deep-set eyes, while David is fair, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. They both give the impression of great vitality and good spirits. Their talk is quick and pointed.

Peter Schmitt in his technical officer’s field uniform.

Russell Hunt is twenty-two and is tall and slender. He has medium blond coloring, with level brows and regular features. He is full of fun, but reticent, too, abruptly disposing of anything particularly difficult with “You just had to”— and a little lift of his shoulders.

Peter and David Schmitt and Russell Hunt have the Combat Infantry Badge, ETO ribbon with two battle stars and a number of letters of commendation from commanding officers of the Army in Italy. [Peter later received the Bronze Star.]

All three were in Communications, Regimental HQ being in control of troop movements, Hunt explained, and David Schmitt called it ‘the nervous system.’ The CP might be a hundred yards from the front — or miles behind it. Sometimes they stayed a while in one place, but oftener they were on the move. “When we were really pushing,” Peter Schmitt said, “we’d have five or six command posts a day.” He was radio man, transmitting messages from the regiment to the division. Six men constituted his group. They moved by jeep, or on mules if their objective took them up a mountain trail. When the front was too fluid, they’d take turns. Half the group would be up spotting artillery fire while half stayed back.

Peter Schmitt (in dark trousers) in the filed as a radio operator, 1945.

Hunt had charge of one of the company’s three radio jeeps, driving the car and running the radio, sometimes alone, sometimes with other men. David Schmitt was a walkie-talkie man, going out with officers on reconnaissance trips.

“Our regiment was always out in front,” Hunt said. He said it was a lot of fun going back to Headquarters through the German lines. “We were surrounded on three side. You just had to go through their lines to get back.” (Peter Schmitt explained that when a division is pushing, they take key points, then fan out rapidly, leaving pockets of Germans on either side.) “My jeep was shot up,” Hunt said, “but I was never hit,” he added quickly.

Supply problems in the mountains were terrific and food was mostly K-rations, so that the men longed for such things as milk and green vegetables. For sleeping, they’d make a bunker, a big hole roofed with logs and sand bags, and they’d get lots of straw for bedding from a near-by farm. Staying several days in one place, they’d be billeted in a house or building. They’d feel quite secure if they were in a spot where the mortars fell short and the way-back fire was passing overhead.

Troops of the 10th Mountain Division marching in Italy, April, 1945.

And being under cover always gave a feeling of protection, even if the roof was fragile. Peter Schmitt remembered once when they were shelled and he, being on duty, had to leave the house and go out to his radio in the jeep . “I ran out there and as soon as I got in the jeep, I felt perfectly safe, just because it had a canvas top,” he observed smilingly. “It was pretty hot that night.”

“Yes,” said David Schmitt, “when we got up in the morning, a tree was on our house.”

To be continued . . .

Peter Carl Schmitt, 1923-2017

Peter Schmitt as a technical sergeant in the famed 10th Mountain Division of the U. S. Army (the “ski troops”), which saw action at the front lines in Italy in the winter of 1944-45.

Peter C. Schmitt died on Saturday, June 10, 2017 after a brief illness.  He was born on March 19, 1923 in Norwalk, Connecticut, the fourth son of Carl and Gertrude Schmitt.  He was raised in Silvermine, Connecticut, and graduated from New Canaan High School, where he met the love of his life, the former Jane Hunt.  Upon graduation in 1943, Mr. Schmitt enlisted in the U. S. Army and served in Italy with the famous Tenth Mountain Division Ski Troops.  He participated in the battle of Riva Ridge and was awarded the Bronze Star.

Upon discharge from the army, he married his high school sweetheart and settled in Silvermine, raising their six children and pursuing a career as a commercial artist in the advertising industry in New York City.  After his retirement he relocated to Bedford, New Hampshire.  He and his wife later returned to Connecticut in November of last year.

His funeral mass will be celebrated at the Basilica of St, John the Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut on June 15.  He is survived by Jane, his wife of seventy-one years, and their three sons and two daughters, as well as his sister, four of his brothers, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Mr. Schmitt is preceded in death by his daughter Carolyn Jane “Karen” Schmitt, and brothers Austin, Michael, David, and John Schmitt.

Among David Schmitt’s many stories and recollections of his growing up is the following portrait of his brother Peter.

Peter Schmitt at the age of 3½.

Peter’s temperament is a lot like Dad’s.  If there was ever a person true to the character of St. Peter’s, my brother Peter is the one.  Just like St. Peter in the gospel, he is a leader.  He is outspoken, to the point.  He is spontaneous; he is intuitive; he’s extroverted.  Black and white.  Truth is charity and there’s no such thing as unnecessary charity!

Peter at an early age wanted to play the violin.  The only hitch was he had to learn and unfortunately that was at the expense of all the rest of us.  Dad remedied the situation by having him practice at the other end of the acre of land we owned.  There was an old shack there and I remember after school Pete was free to go to it by himself.

Peter (far left) and his brothers David, Jacob, John, and Carl, Jr. about 1932.

Peter was also a fast talker. I remember once when our friend Harry was visiting, Peter sent me to the house to get a quarter he had in his desk.  We were all going to go to Guthrie’s market for candy. While I was getting the quarter, Peter and Harry took off on their bicycles and when I came out I was shocked to find out they’d left without me, and I was a little hurt too!  When they got back an hour later, I complained, and Peter’s reply was, “Well at least we didn’t take off in front of you.  We were decent enough to send you in the house for the quarter so you wouldn’t see us.”  From then on in life I knew what I was dealt, or up against.

My aunt Martita once took me aside and said to me, “David, if you wouldn’t cry when Peter bully’s you, he wouldn’t enjoy it so much and he would leave you alone.” That evening I did better than that. When he started in on me, I punched him on the nose, knocked him down and beat him up.  It’s amazing what a word from a grown up will do for a little courage when one is down or depressed!

He never challenged me again; in fact he’s always respected me since and I respect him too!   I think when I was about six he taught me that lesson.

Peter (left) and his brother David about 1924.

Another time when we were in Rome, Chris (who was about eight) went down in the driveway to play with the boy who lived below us.  The boy, being the only son of a military man, was quite spoiled and got everything he wanted.  He got mad at Chris.  Their maid heard him under the kitchen window so she thought she’d help him by throwing a glass of cold water on Chris.  Chris came upstairs crying, his feelings more outraged than anything else.  The big kids, Peter and Mike, came to his defense.  They told him to go back down and yell up at the maid, which he did.  Sure enough, she moved into position above him with another glass of cold water.  When she did, she got a whole dish pan full over her head.  This time no one came to pound on the door.  In fact, we all celebrated at an easy victory.