Profile: Hans Schmid, from Germany to Shelter Island

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Hans Schmid outside his home on South Cartwright Road.

Everybody knows Hans Schmid, the inveterate biker, bowler and baker’s son who has been taking care of the roads and everything else that has needed maintenance, repair and tinkering in Shelter Island Heights for 30 years.

But younger Islanders, and other more recent arrivals, probably have no idea Hans was born in southern Germany, in a town called Eislingen on the Fils River east of Stuttgart.

He visited Germany once in the late 1970s with his father, George, who showed him the room where he was born in an apartment over a tavern that had been his grandfather’s before it was his father’s.

They visited his mother’s family in northern Germany but they had a much better time when they headed south to Eislingen.

“Somebody told me that in north Germany, if there’s a table for 10 and eight people are sitting there but they don’t know you, there’s no room,”

Hans said during a chat at the bar in his downstairs pool-and-storage room, where there’s barely enough room for the pool table he salvaged from St. Gabe’s Retreat 25 years ago. “But in the south, if it’s a table of 10 and there are 11 people sitting there, there’s still room for you.”

He continued to sing the praises of the town of his birth. “All we did was play pinochle and drink schnaps” with a church group he had expected not to like. In the early morning, after two cops shooed them from the church, they went to someone’s house nearby and had noodle soup and schnaps for breakfast.

He came to America with his two older sisters and his parents when he was 13 months old. The family started out in Huntington, where his father’s sister was living. The old country tavern had been buried in his grandfather’s debts and, in post-war Germany, where his oldest sister Heidi could remember living on grass soup during the war, his parents had been unable to make ends meet. Hans’ father, George, had expected back pay for his German Army service, including four years as a POW working for a French farmer. But it turned out his father had cashed all his son’s checks and spent the money.

Here on Long Island, George went to work at a bakery in Elwood. He later bought a house in Kings Park, where he started his own bakery. Hans went to elementary school there and to Long Island Lutheran in Brookville for high school.

Everyone in the house knew how to speak German except Hans. “I only learned the dirty stuff from my parents,” he said, so he took German in high school.

“I almost didn’t pass,” he remembered. The problem was he was being taught “haupt Deutsch” at school, he said, but at home they spoke a southern dialect. “They’d help me with my homework and I’d come back [to school] and say, ‘Hey, come on, man, you got it all wrong!’”

His father wanted to retire one day on Shelter Island, where Hans’ sister Rosie had gone to live after her marriage to Charles Wissemann, whose father was in the baking supply business.

The Schmids moved here in 1969, the year Hans graduated from high school. They lived in the house on South Cartwright where John and Carol Hallman live now. It’s right next door to the log house Hans and his wife Debbie — now Debbie Speeches, they divorced after Hans developed his interest in motorcycles — would build for themselves in 1984 and raise their two children, Tanya and Jeremy. It’s where Hans lives today with a couple of cockatiels, an errant rooster from a neighboring property and a friend-and-boarder or two.

In 1969, his father opened a bakery with seating for lunch and dinner in the building now occupied by Maria’s Kitchen at the corner of Jaspa Road and Route 114; later he built the structure on South Ferry Road that Vine Street Restaurant has expanded in recent years and moved his bakery there.

Hans went to college for a year at the Church College of Hawaii, a Mormon school, of all places. Why? “Because even with two round trips, it was cheaper than living at home and going to Southampton,” he said.

But that fall, Hans pulled number 79 out of 365 in the first national draft lottery, which meant he would be losing his student deferment and, most likely, wind up in Vietnam after the school year. So he enlisted in the Navy to avoid the infantry.

He likes to joke that he did manage to see combat. Based in Boston, he spent time in a part of South Boston called “The Combat Zone” that had some good bars.

When he came home, he worked for his father, cooking and serving. He also had jobs doing whatever had to be done at John Michalak’s restaurants at Goat Hill and before that the Dory. In the winter, Hans headed to Florida, where among other jobs he made heroes and served beer at a place called Heidi’s Hoagies.

Retirement wasn’t in the cards for Hans’ father. On Shelter Island, he worked harder than ever, 18 hours a day, and sleeping on the couch during the holidays when the orders for gingerbread houses and stollen came pouring in. When he was diagnosed with liver cancer, the end came quickly both for him and the bakery. The family searched but there were no recipes left behind; they all had been in George’s head.

Hans’ first major job was working for Glen King on Shelter Island building docks. He did that for six years, then spent a year “painting and doing whatever needed to be done” at Coecles Harbor Marina and then two years working as a mechanic for Hap Bowditch.

“Then I sold my soul,” he laughed, after seeing a help wanted ad placed by the Heights Property Owners Corporation for a maintenance worker. He’s been at it 30 years come June.

Now John Michalak is working for Hans on the two-man Heights maintenance crew, plowing, picking up leaves, taking care of roads and sewers. Hans used to run the sewage treatment plant, too, but after it was upgraded the Heights hired a separate manager for that.

John is a bike fan like Hans; the two rode to Florida together a while ago. Bev Pelletier is another biker buddy; she and Hans have been all over, from North Carolina to New Hampshire.

Hans got into biking about 15 years ago “during my midlife crisis.” He’s got four in his garage but he hasn’t been aboard for two years now because of a hip problem.

His son Jeremy has been in the Air Force for five years, based in Afghanistan right now. Tanya lives in Beacon, New York, where she is a house painter. Sister Heidi lives in Arizona and South Carolina and Rosie and brother-in-law Charlie are close by.

These days for fun Hans plays pool and bowls at the Legion Hall. He writes the men’s bowling column for the Reporter, where editors and proofers are always on the lookout for the earthy double entendres he has been known to plant in his copy.