MY TURN: Noted judge found love of his life at first sight

By Tom Kirvan

Covering his retirement party was one of my first assignments when I joined The Legal News six years ago. It proved to be the ultimate get-acquainted session with Gene Schnelz, who was about to leave the Oakland County Circuit Court in 2007 after nearly 30 years on the bench, not including the four he spent as a district court judge.

It was billed as "a series of short talks eulogizing the Judge for his sweetness, kindness, patience, wonderful temperament, and stressing what a great mediator/arbitrator he will be."

It was not his funeral. He preferred that wait awhile. When that inevitable day does arrive, however, Judge Schnelz knows that his many friends and admirers will be poised for action.

"Harold Bulgarelli, a longtime friend and a retired district court judge, once told me that he was working on my eulogy and it was up to 40 pages," Judge Schnelz recalled. "Years later when I asked him how it was coming, he said it was now down to a moment of silence."

There weren't too many of those that evening, a two-hour long roast in which Schnelz was poked, prodded, and, at times, even praised. After all, it was a retirement roast and good-natured ribbing is the favored entrée at such occasions.

But, befitting a man of his judicial stature, the Oakland County jurist was accorded the last word. He, not surprisingly, didn't miss an opportunity to return a few volleys that had been lobbed his way over the course of the evening. But not before friends, family, and judicial colleagues had their way with a giant of a jurist, a man who spent 20 years as a commissioner for the State Bar of Michigan and is a past president of the Oakland County Bar Association.

Bulgarelli, who was Schnelz's law partner for 15 years, took particular joy in roasting the honoree.

"Nobody every got hoarse talking to Gene," said Bulgarelli during his turn at the microphone, poking fun at the "loquacious nature" of his dear friend.

"Gene once told me that he loves food more than sex," Bulgarelli continued. "I didn't believe him until I went over to his house and saw mirrors over the dining room table."

That table, all kidding aside, also served as a gathering point for the Schnelz family, a tight-knit group that was out in force for the retirement party. Son Kurt, a successful family law attorney in Birmingham who also is a past president of the OCBA, served as emcee. Daughters Elizabeth (a drama teacher) and Rebecca (an attorney) lauded their father for his kind and gentle ways, thanking him for "teaching us how to be helpers, how to be charitable." His grandchildren--Stephanie (now an attorney), Steven, Carrie, and Jacob--also took their turns at the podium, alternatively giving their grandfather some grief and some grace for his personality traits.

His wife, Betty, was there at his side, offering plenty of moral support. She has been his gem, his "forever Valentine" since they first set eyes upon each other nearly 60 years ago.

Their courtship, although it spanned a year, really amounted to a mere six hours, according to Judge Schnelz, who had an established set of criteria in mind for his future wife.

"After a series of disappointments, I came to the conclusion that my true love had to be a brunette, around 5 feet, 2 inches tall," he said. "She also had to be German, a Lutheran, and not just any Lutheran, but one from the Missouri Synod denomination. She also had to be a professional, but someone from a middle class family who knew the importance of sacrifice and hard work."

A friend told Schnelz that she had found just such a woman for him. She was a nurse at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, the city where she grew up. Their first date was to start at midnight one evening after her eight-hour shift ended at Beaumont. For Schnelz, it was the proverbial "love at first sight."

"We talked for six hours that evening, me trying to convince her we were destined for each other and she should marry me," Schnelz said in all seriousness. "It was the best argument I ever made. That night we both knew we were meant for each other. I'm here to say that dreams do come true and that there can be storybook endings."

He related his "love at first sight" story last week, on the eve of Valentine's Day. As we headed for lunch with his son Kurt, Judge Schnelz paused for a moment to show a special treat that his wife had given him that morning.

It was a Valentine card, perhaps the mother of all Valentine cards. It was big and brassy, the kind that can put a substantial dent in a pocketbook. It also spelled true love, something the two have shared since their first date some six decades ago.

He may have said it best at his retirement party, calling her "my best friend, my confidante, my advisor, my helpmate, my lover, my prayer partner, my gourmet chef, my sweetheart."

Or perhaps he did himself one better in court one day.

"In the middle of a jury trial, there was a sudden tremor and the courthouse actually shook," Judge Schnelz recalled. "Everyone was frightened for the moment and one of the attorneys blurted out that he had never had a room shake like that. Noting the anxiety in the jury, I commented that, 'Well it happens to me every time I kiss my wife.' Everyone laughed and the moment passed. The thing that pleased me most was that I ordered a transcript of the event and gave it to Betty as a Valentine. It saved me money."

Published: Mon, Feb 18, 2013