95-year-old Wisconsin chaplain works to connect with inmates

May 4, 2019

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (AP) — Well past traditional retirement age, John Schone remains a man on a mission.

Armed with a warm smile, an array of clever jokes and his strong Christian faith, the Eau Claire man has devoted his life to sharing his beliefs with those who need a spiritual lift.

The quest that began as a young man doing missionary work in Japan in the aftermath of World War II continues today with Schone, now 95, reaching out to inmates in the Eau Claire County Jail and Wisconsin prison system.

A self-described visitation chaplain, Schone calculates that he has made more than 700 jail visits and written hundreds of letters to current and former inmates over the past 25 years, all in hopes of lifting their spirits and helping them turn their lives around.

“It’s my life, but I don’t want to live just for me,” he told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. “I want to use the breath God gave me to help someone else. That’s what drives me.”

Kenny Paulson, who sat in the pew next to Schone and his wife, Lucia, at a recent Easter Sunday service, is one of the many lives Schone has touched.

“I’m a three-time loser. I’m not the kind of guy most people want in their church,” said Paulson, 57, revealing that he spent 16 years in prison after convictions for battery, drug offenses and sexual assault. “But John believes in me and he instills trust in others.”

Their story began, ironically, with a bookmark — normally something that designates a stopping point.

It was 1999, and Paulson was incarcerated at Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls. In his job as a prison library clerk, he was organizing books donated by the Eau Claire and Altoona public libraries when out fell a bookmark with the words “Trust in the Lord.” For some reason, Paulson, who was mired in suicidal thoughts at the time, stuffed the bookmark in his pocket.

After stumbling across similar bookmarks in the next few months, Paulson was inspired to attend a prison fellowship group. He shared the story about the bookmarks and his troubled life during a session attended by Schone. It was a match made in prison, although Paulson and Schone would argue heaven may have had something to do with it.

“He heard my story in 1999, and he never let me go. He stayed with me,” Paulson said. “He was the light in my darkness.”

Paulson recalled Schone visiting him in prison and calmly listening while Paulson vented about his frustrations. Paulson also remembers how much he looked forward to getting Schone’s letters. Copies of correspondence with inmates now fill more than two file cabinets at Schone’s south side home.

“The letters became something you looked forward to at a time when you had nothing,” said Paulson, who appreciated that Schone shared stories of his own life in the missives.

After being born in the Twin Cities and graduating from high school in Cornell, Schone served for three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was on a ship near where the Japanese surrendered after two U.S. atomic bomb attacks brought about the war’s end.

Schone said he was part of a patrol that walked the streets of Japan, amid people he previously considered enemies, proclaiming the war was over. While the Japanese people showed no interest in talking to the Americans at that time, Schone said, “I wanted to meet them and let them know I cared for them. The Lord put it in my heart that the war was over and it was time to move on.”

After returning to Wisconsin, Schone was working at a Baptist camp in 1947 when a camp leader asked the staff if anyone would take the place of the camp nurse’s son, who had died after committing to be a missionary. Schone said he felt called to volunteer. That same night he met Lucia, and they married in 1948.

Their first date was at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair in Chippewa Falls, where they went on the Ferris wheel even though Lucia was afraid of heights. “She held on to me for dear life, and she has been holding on ever since,” Schone said, grinning at his wife.

The couple went to Japan in 1950 to begin their missionary careers, Lucia choosing to minister to Japanese women. At some point, inspired by another missionary suggesting Japan needed a Christian camping ministry, Schone said he felt called to pursue that goal.

After launching a camp, Schone identified a beautiful piece of mountainous land northwest of Tokyo that he thought would make an ideal spot for a permanent camp. The land owner initially rebuffed Schone’s requests to acquire the land, but eventually agreed to lease and then later to sell the land to Schone for the camp.

Schone launched Matsubarako Bible Camp in 1952 and directed it for 25 of the 38 years he worked as a missionary in Japan. A book about the camp and a few other mementos from the couple’s time in Japan occupy prominent spots in the Schones’ living room. The camp, now run by a Japanese church group, is still operating today, Schone said proudly.

The couple returned to the United States in 1988, and Schone started his visiting chaplain duties in 1994 after serving on a chaplain’s council for a jail ministry program.

Schone saw a need for a one-on-one visitation ministry in which inmates could really open their hearts and talk about weighty issues — something he didn’t see happening during many family visits filled with talk about the weather and the Green Bay Packers — so he decided to fill it.

At the ministry’s peak, Schone said he conducted half-hour sessions with 18 men every Friday at the Eau Claire County Jail and still had a waiting list of more inmates seeking meetings. He eventually expanded his efforts to visit Chippewa Valley inmates sentenced to prisons across Wisconsin and even in other states, traveling an estimated 140,000 miles to carry out his mission.

Lucia, now 92, remains a strong supporter of the unique ministry Schone has fashioned for himself. “I’m very glad that he is involved in something so useful for others and so satisfying to him,” she said.

Schone has won hearts near and far.

“I just adore John and how many people he has touched and helped over the years,” said Gayle Sullivan, an administrative specialist at the Eau Claire County sheriff’s office who feels fortunate to have forged a bond with Schone and earned a spot on his mailing list. “His letters are full of inspiration and bring joy to anyone who reads them.”

Though his mind and recall remain remarkably sharp, Schone acknowledged that weakness in his body has forced him to slow down a bit. He no longer conducts jail and prison visits, but he remains committed to pursuing his life’s work.

In addition to writing about five personal letters a week, Schone still strives to send out about 10 “aftercare letters” annually to about 100 former inmates and friends on his mailing list. Up to a third of the recipients write him back, which he calls an “extra blessing.”

“All of my letters are hand-written,” Schone said. “I just think it seems more personal.”

Schone also said he met former inmates for a meal at Randy’s Family Restaurant 103 times in 2017 and 57 times in 2018, often picking them up just as they were released from jail at 5:30 a.m. to start their freedom off with a free breakfast. He insists on treating the first time he meets with a former inmate as part of what he calls his aftercare ministry.

“The main thing is to have some input into their lives from the very first day they are out,” said Schone, who tries to open and close every meeting with a prayer.

During a recent interview, Schone’s cellphone rang multiple times — the calls coming from inmates or former inmates hoping to arrange a meeting or just talk. Schone estimated that he still gets two or three such calls a day.

The connection between Schone and Paulson continued when Paulson got out of prison in 2003 and Schone was waiting to greet Paulson at his halfway house.

It even extended to California and Texas — places where Paulson moved temporarily after gaining his liberty and returning to his old ways of focusing more on drinking than faith. To Paulson’s shock, he received letters from Schone in both states, even though he hadn’t shared his address. “Can you believe that?” Paulson said with a chuckle. “Somehow he found me.”

Both letters inspired him to “high-tail it back to Wisconsin” and attempt to get his life together. Paulson proudly noted that he hasn’t had a drink of alcohol in more than five years, has held a steady job at Randy’s since 2015 and now considers himself a true believer in God.

“I decided that this is where God wants me to be. This is where I need to be,” said Paulson, who gives much of the credit for his turnaround to the mentoring of Schone.

“He’s almost like an angel in disguise,” Paulson said. “John Schone has been the biggest inspiration in my life, and I could never repay him for what he’s done for my life. He’s a miracle.”

For his part, Schone said a key goal of his ministry is building trust with the inmates he counsels, and that can take time.

Schone, who characterized himself as a hugger, noted that one inmate asked him not to hug him because he had been molested as a child and didn’t trust anyone enough to share such close contact.

Two years later, the man announced, “You can hug me now. I trust you,” Schone recalled.

In 2012, Schone’s friend Dennis Miller, a former Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. worker who has written several books and runs Tears of Love Ministry, helped Schone assemble about 60 of his letters into a book, titled “Letters from Home.”

As he read through what he called the “letters from heaven” to select ones to publish, Miller recalled being moved by their personal, comforting nature.

“Chaplain John’s message relates God’s love in a way that only the incarcerated fully appreciate and former inmates comprehend,” Miller wrote in the book’s forward.

Miller said he still reads from Schone’s letters when conducting jail services.

“He’s very much beloved,” Miller said of Schone. “He’s about as good of a man as you’re going to meet.”

In one of his letters, Schone reveals a secret about his 71-year marriage. He explains that Lucia loves candles, so they try to light a candle at least twice a week at dinner to keep the romance burning. Schone estimates the couple has lit more than 4,000 candles in their time together.

Even that touching letter contains some of his signature silly humor, stating, “We have one big room in our house — ROOM for improvement” and also “We are still pretty sharp, so we live on the edge of town.”

Yet Schone takes his faith seriously. After a lifetime of devotion to Christianity, Schone said he still follows a ritual every day to continue growing in his faith and carrying out what he sees as God’s wishes for him.

“Even at 95, I still need it,” he said. “You never get to the point where you know it all. If you’re not growing, you’re dying, and my goal is to live right to the end.”


Information from: Leader-Telegram, http://www.leadertelegram.com/