She was a member of the supporting cast, one of those special people who keeps the stars in the sky, yet still gets tagged with a two-word introduction: “His brother, Sam.” Or “his daughter, Janice.”
Or “his wife, Millie.”
It shouldn’t take her death to bring Millie Schembechler, wife of Bo, to the front of the sentence. But so be it. She was never interested in top billing. She was more concerned with how your family was doing, or if the couch was comfortable and the food was OK. She could invite you in with a smile, she could lecture you in motherly tones even though she was not your mother. She could do something few mortals can do: tell her husband he was wrong.
Try that sometime.
She died Wednesday of cancer on a beautiful summer afternoon, the kind of day she would have loved. And while it didn’t stir the headlines of a Rose Bowl win, or a Tigers sale, it did send a ripple of pain through those who knew her.
It sent a ripple through me. If today be the day for telling stories about Millie Schembechler, here is the best one I know: I was working on a book with her famous husband, and the time came for him to read the first-draft chapters. As I watched anxiously, he looked them over, grunting
“umm . . . umm-hmm.” Finally, he nodded approval. Then he lowered his reading glasses, and looked me dead on.
“Of course, we have to see what Millie thinks.”
Thus did Millie Schembechler become my “editor.” And although the book was in Bo’s words, each chapter came back with these suggestions:
On the top left side, in red pencil, she drew a frowning face. In this category went the “naughty” words Bo had used.
Atop the right side, she drew a smiling face. And under it, she wrote her substitutions:
“Damn” became “darn.” “Son of a bitch” became “son of a gun.”
Frowning face to smiley face.
I was being edited by cartoon. Smiley faces . . . making things better
And yet, if you knew Millie, you had to laugh, because if she could have slapped a happy face over every sad one in the world, she would have done it. Cover asphalt with daffodils. Fill silence with music. Make things better.
People who have seen both sides can do that. Millie saw both sides. She was born poor, in rural Mississippi, part of a large family that, according to a family friend, “lived in a run-down place with a dirt floor.” Millie never forgot that. She never looked down at people. Once, working as a nurse in Buffalo in the early ’60s, a black man entered the hospital, needing emergency treatment. He was ignored because of his color. Millie informed the doctors. She, too, was ignored.
So she walked out and tended to the man herself. It was the right thing to do.
That was her way. Those of you who knew her only as the first lady of Michigan football for 20 years really didn’t know her. Millie was a healer, an organizer, a charity addict, and, above all, a mother. She had been raising three sons on her own before Bo arrived on a blind date in the summer of 1968. Before she would marry him, she asked their OK.
Even in her last sickly days, she retained that indomitable knack of motherhood. A friend, hoping to cheer her up, sent videotapes of happier times, when Millie was healthy, attending functions with famous people, beaming that perfect smile.
Not long after, the friend received a note. The handwriting was scratchy:
“Thank you for the videos. They will be precious mementos for the kids should this ugly cancer do me in.” Never was top billing so deserved
It did her in, finally. No one will ever know the long battle Millie, 63, fought with this disease, or the hours her husband spent urging her back to health, searching for doctors, fighting the inevitable the way he once fought a fourth-quarter clock.
Bo would leave Tiger Stadium early, go home and tend to his wife, week after week, month after month. When she seemed to have the strength, he would cajole her downstairs, and get her on the stationary bicycle.
“I got her to go five minutes today,” he told me once. “Tomorrow, we start with the weights.”
It broke your heart. Here was this ex-football coach, trying to keep his wife alive by doing the one thing he knew best: work out, get in shape, get stronger than your opponent.
But cancer is not sports; when it wants you, it takes you. And so, a few weeks ago, on the day he was fired from the Tigers, Bo passed his 24th wedding anniversary alone with his ailing wife. They had take-out food.
And today, no one can feel the emptiness inside the Schembechler house. No one can hurt the way her four sons, Chip, Geoff, Matt and Shemy, are hurting. No one can console the old coach.
The Academy Awards have something called Best Supporting Actress, and if life gave out such statuettes, Millie would have a few. But to those who knew her, she deserved marquee billing. So, in the last mention, maybe we should skip the two- word intro and move her to the front of the sentence:
Millie Schembechler, whose husband and children loved her dearly, said good-bye yesterday, leaving us in the sunshine, a happy face over the clouds, one last edit on the way to heaven. She will be missed. She will be missed.