I like to think that I hang out with a pretty good class of people in my life. Some are of high social station, some at the bottom rung. But all are good people. People I value. I also like to think I know good writing when I read something worth mentioning. The two groups cross quite a bit in my life as an aspiring author. I am proud that one of the best in that bunch is my friend Bob Stephenson.
Bob is a retired Lieutenant Colonel that I met years ago working with Toys For Tots. My most vivid impression of him was with his feet on the desk, a cigar in his mouth, and a horde of admirers around him. He was one of those officers that drew a crowd. I was long out of the Navy, but I knew Bob was one of those guys I’d follow through the gates of Hell. Mainly because he could run lots faster than me and he’d be throwing shots at Satan with a smile on his face as he crashed through said gates. I also liked him because I gave him a load of abuse for flying “spastic palm trees” and he just smiled. (Helicopter pilots are a different breed. Marine helicopter pilots scare the rest of them for a lot of reasons…)
In any event, Bob’s friend Thomas Schepers passed away the other day. Bob’s Facebook post about Tom was moving. I am reposting it here, with Bob’s permission, because it speaks well of both men. I hope I can live my life half as well as Tom did in his way. Semper Fidelis, Thomas. Semper Fidelis, Bob. I am richer in my life by knowing men like you.
Bob Stephenson’s Post
I would like to tell the story of my friend Tom Schepers who passed away earlier this week. In his obituary one can read that he was a devoted Catholic, husband, father, and grandfather. This is the story of a fellow Marine who had spent the last 30 or so years of his life running all over hell’s half-acre. It’s a story about the best runner I have ever known, and I’ve know a lot of “good” runners in my life. Tom Schepers never won a race, and never ran fast. However, he never just ran, because when he ran he was serving his God, his country, the Marine Corps, and his fellow veterans.
Tom Schepers graduated from North St. Paul High School in 1964. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and after recruit training and infantry training, he became an 0311 Infantryman. He was assigned to India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and was deployed to Vietnam. Tom was a PFC when he was wounded in action on May 15th, 1967. This occurred during during Operation Union, for which the 5th Marine Regiment was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. He had been shot with an AK-47, and the bullet passed through his left foot and then passed through his right calf. Doctors told him during initial rehab that he may never walk again. Lance Corporal Schepers returned home from the war, left active duty, and eventually went to nursing school and became an RN. He worked for many years in the ICU at St. Joseph’s hospital in St. Paul from where he eventually retired. He defied his doctors’ original pessimism by not only walking, but by beginning to run for veteran’s causes sometime during the 1980’s.
I first heard about Tom Schepers in 1999 when his name came up at one of the monthly meetings of the Marine Corps Coordinating Council of Minnesota. It was mentioned that this Schepers fellow was planning a run across the country to raise money and awareness for the WWII Veterans Memorial. I first met him in person later that year when I was driving across the Lake Road overpass over I-494 in Woodbury, and saw him running with his signature flagpole. I did a U-turn and stopped him and introduced myself.
In 2000, Tom made his historic run, leaving Camp Pendleton on D-Day (June 6th) and arriving in Washington, DC on Veterans Day (November 11th). He ran 25 miles per day, six days per week, taking Sundays off. He carried his famous 10’2” flagpole which bore an American flag and the POW flag. He had some accessories duct-taped to the pole like a stopwatch and a rosary. And as if that wasn’t enough, Tom wore a 10-pound weight-belt around his waist, to replicate and symbolize the weight of the M1 Garand rifle, which was the standard service rifle carried by American servicemen in WWII. Not long after departing, the support RV that followed him broke down near Palm Springs. During the two days that it took to repair it, Tom made daily local runs of 25 miles each.
Sometime during early 2002, I received an email that described the process for nominating someone to be a torch-bearer for the upcoming 2002 Winter Olympics, which were to be held in Salt Lake City, Utah. The public relations agency conducting the effort was Weber-Shandwick, with Coca Cola as a financial sponsor. I immediately thought of Tom, and submitted a nomination for him. The instructions indicated that a nominee should demonstrate qualities such as courage, commitment, selflessness, etc. I had no problem showing those with Tom’s basic bio. Tom told me later when they called him to notify him that he was selected as one of the 2400 torch-bearers, he asked them who had nominated him. When they said my name, he wasn’t sure who I was, as he had forgotten it since we had met that one time on the highway overpass. Additionally, NBC chose 60 of the torchbearers to profile on a TV special, and one of those was Tom Schepers.
Although the California to DC trek was certainly his marquee run, it was just one of many that Tom made for various veterans causes. For example, he had run the Twin Cities Marathon almost every year since it’s start in 1982. He told me a few years ago that he had run it 22 times. He told me had run 700 times, totaling 3500 miles, for just the Minnesota Korean War Memorial. He ran from St. Paul to Rochester, and from Duluth to St. Paul. He ran all over the state of Minnesota.
I remember running the first 6 or 7 miles of the Twin Cities Marathon with Tom in 2003. If you ever saw Tom run, you know that he did not have a smooth stride, and that he ran very slow. His gait was a bit awkward, and you could tell that it was laborious for him. I asked him “how much does that flagpole weigh?” He replied “it get’s lighter every mile, it’s filled with helium.” I took the flagpole from him for a few minutes, and it was heavy and cumbersome. The cheering that emanated from the crowd as we ran by was both exhilarating and inspirational. I felt guilty running next to him.
One of his more interesting and memorable runs took Tom to Illinois. On May 15th, 1967, the same day that Tom was wounded, his unit was operating in Quang Tin in Vietnam. Alongside Tom during a firefight that day there was a Navy Corpsman named David Krig who was killed by enemy fire while tending to another wounded Marine named Bill Wesche. It was Krig’s first day with Tom’s unit. Twenty eight years later, in 1995, Tom ran with his flags from St. Paul to the Naval Base at Great Lakes, IL. When he arrived, Bill Wesche took the American flag down from Tom’s pole, and handed it to Chuck Lindbergh. Lindbergh was one of the original flag-raisers on Iwo Jima in WWII, and was a friend of Schepers’ living in Minnesota. Lindbergh in turn handed the flag to Krig’s mother, who had traveled from Kansas for the event.
A few years ago I asked Tom to be the guest of honor and speaker at a Marine Corps Birthday celebration. As a result I needed some information in order to introduce him. During the course of this interview I asked him why he did what he did, and he told me a very moving story. It was November of 1966, and although he didn’t remember the exact date, he recalled it was shortly before Thanksgiving. On a rainy night in Vietnam, he was carrying the bodies of Marines that had been killed in action down a muddy hill. He remembered thinking that their families back home would be receiving notice of their loved one’s death just prior to Thanksgiving, and that their celebrations would be somber as a result. He said that he made a vow right then and there to his fallen comrades that they would not be forgotten.
There is a drill-instructor running cadence that is well-known among Marines that reminds me of Tom. It talks about a Marine that dies and shows up at the pearly gates and one line goes like this: “Another Marine reporting sir… I’ve served my time in hell.” The Marine Corps’ motto is Semper Fidelis” which is Latin for “Always Faithful.” Some Marines live out that motto more than others. Tom Schepers was one of those Marines pulling the rest of us along.
LtCol Bob Stephenson, USMC (Ret)