Shopkeeper's art 'discovered' as he hits his 100th year

John Schoolman, shown here in his art studio, will celebrate his 100th birthday during open houses Jan. 22 and Jan. 25. Schoolman lived many years in Bippus, where he owned a general store from 1936 to 1973.
Photo provided.

Originally printed Jan. 22, 2009

He's been a soldier and a shopkeeper, a hunter and a fisherman.

Now he's an artist, preparing for exhibits in Bloomington and Nashville, Indiana.

And today, he's celebrating his birthday.

His 100th.

The occasion calls for not one, but two, parties - both open to all of the friends John Schoolman has made along the way.

Schoolman, who with his late wife Ada operated Schoolman's Grocery in Bippus for nearly four decades, now lives in a lake home in Leesburg. He's a frequent visitor to the Senior Primelife Enrichment Center in North Webster, where his first birthday party is being held today, Jan. 22. The party starts at noon at the North Webster Community Center, 301 N. Main St., North Webster.

A second party, hosted by Schoolman's family and friends, will be held at the North Webster American Legion, 756 S. State Road 13 in North Webster, on Sunday, Jan. 25, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Next month, Schoolman will travel to Indiana University, where his colorful canes and walking sticks will be on display. The hand-carved and decorated canes and sticks will be featured in the Mathers Museum of World Cultures on the Bloomington campus from Feb. 17 through March 8, with a reception honoring Schoolman set for Feb. 20 from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

From Bloomington, Schoolman's canes will travel to the Center for Folk Traditions in Nashville, IN, for a folk art exhibit; after that, the canes and walking sticks will be available for temporary exhibits at schools and libraries.

Schoolman started making the canes and walking sticks "somewhere around 1980, I think," he says. "I wasn't very good at first."

He starts by picking up sticks along the road during his frequent walks. He uses a wood-burner to outline the designs, then carves in a poem, a piece of literature or a pithy saying, also with a woodburner. Finally, colorful paint is added.

Creating a cane can take days, he says, both in waiting for inspiration and the actual work.

"It may take you days to find out just what you want," he says.

And he doesn't work on them non-stop, he adds.

"You stop, do something else, and then come back to it," he says. "It takes quite a while."

He's not sure how many he's made.

"Oh, my," he says. "A very few hundred, I would think."

One of the walking sticks bears a lengthy story he took out of the bulletin he receives in the mail from his church, the New Hope United Church of Christ in Bippus.

Other sayings come from one of the many books he owns.

"I have several hundred books - 400, 500, 600, maybe more," he says. "I have two or three hundred by Indiana authors."
He's re-reading those books now, going author by author (he's just started on Booth Tarkington), to pass the wintry days on the lake where most of his neighbors are only summer residents.

"I'm probably going over them for the last time," he says.

Barb Hetrick, director of the Senior Primelife Enrichment Center in North Webster, first saw one of Schoolman's canes several years ago.

"He walked in here and he had a red, white and blue cane," Hetrick says. She saw some-thing engraved on the cane and asked what it was.

"My wife wrote that poem to me when I was in World War II," he replied.

Schoolman had been drafted into the United States Army during World War II, when he was in his mid-30s, and served as a member of the military police guarding shipments in and out of Boston and later guarding German prisoners. His wife stayed home in Bippus to run the store.

"He might have four verses of ‘Silent Night,' all on a cane," Hetrick says. "And there's always a bird, with its beak open, that announces the subject."

There's also an outline of Indiana, clearly marked with the Wabash River and the small town of Bippus, and the slogan: "I'm over the hill, but the climb has been terrific" - a detail Schoolman began adding about two years ago.

Schoolman gives away many of his canes and walking sticks.

"They're around everywhere," Schoolman says. "The East Coast, Montana."

Hetrick, though, convinced him to start selling them and offered him an outlet at the Senior center in North Webster. He took her up on it, and now the canes and sticks sell for $150 and up.

Schoolman's canes and walking sticks have been exhibited in area museums and libraries and featured in local newspapers, magazines and television stations.

Soon, they'll be gaining statewide attention as part of the Bloomington and Nashville exhibits coordinated by Traditional Arts Indiana and ArtsWeek 2009. The exhibit is titled "The Colorful Canes of John Schoolman: Politics, Patriotism and Paint." Many of the canes and sticks in the exhibit have a political or patriotic theme.

"Quite a few of them went down there," Schoolman says. "They bought some, and I loaned quite a few. They were here Saturday and picked out what they wanted."

Schoolman was born in Miami County on Jan. 22, 1909, and graduated from Peru High School. He and Ada Fuller were married in 1936, the same year they opened Schoolman's Grocery in Bippus, says his grandson, Gary Miniear.

"We were looking for a place," Schoolman recalls. A salesman told him about the store in Bippus, and they went to look at it. It was owned by a woman whose husband had died, and business had gone downhill after his death.

"It was running, but not very much," Schoolman says. "Her husband had died and she wasn't doing much with it."

The Schoolmans bought it and brought it back to life. It was one of three groceries in Bippus at the time.

"There was an ice house where the product was stored in large blocks," Miniear remembers. "Children loved to be there when it was delivered in the summer. Some chips would be dropped, and they were rinsed off with water and eaten as treats.

"He butchered cattle and hogs and smoked his meats for the store. There was a small building where a fire smoldering inside would produce great smells when he was proc-essing the meats."

The grocery was really more like a general store, Miniear says.

"Many products were sold in bulk, cookies from a large box stored in metal containers with glass doors," he says. "There was vinegar from a large wooden barrel with a pump on the top. Kerosene was sold the same way but from a steel barrel.

"They sold clothing, shoes, needles and threads. This along with candies, sodas, canned goods and cereals. Some of the fatty cuts of meats were given away for dog food."

"It had a little bit of everything," Schoolman says.

Schoolman remembers the late sportscaster Chris Schenkel, who grew up in Bippus, sitting on the stoop outside the store with his brother, playing guitars and hoping someone would toss them a few coins.

While living in Bippus, Schoolman enjoyed ice fishing and hunting rabbits, squirrels and ducks - deer weren't plentiful at that time - to help put food on his family's table.

"It was 1936 when we went there," Schoolman says. "We had the store 37 years."

When Schoolman and his wife were ready to leave the business in 1973, their store was the last one left in Bippus.

"No one wanted to buy it, so we just closed it up," he says.

After closing the store, they moved full time to their vacation home on Irish Lake near Leesburg. He still lives there all year, even though most of his neighbors are there only in the summer.

"You have to stock up in the fall," he says.

The recent frigid weather kept him inside, carving and reading, but the snow didn't keep him from going out.

"I finally managed a path from the house to the car," he says. "It's 50 feet or so."

He didn't bother getting the mail - the mailbox is a block and a half away from his home.

Schoolman, at 100, doesn't want any birthday gifts. But his grandson says well-wishers can send cards and letters to him at PO Box 1095, Warsaw, IN 46581.