Duluth harbor rescue draws attention to issue of depression in the elderlyWhen Bill Schowalter, 90, crashed his car, police said he must have fallen asleep. His sons knew better. It had been a year since his wife of 67 years had died, and Dad was trying to kill himself. His children say there needs to be better understanding about depression in the elderly and more compassion in getting them help.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
When 90-year-old Bill Schowalter crashed his car into a guardrail west of Hinckley in late October, police said he must have fallen asleep. It was an accident.
His sons knew better: Dad was trying to kill himself.
It had been a year since his wife of 67 years had died after a long illness. The anniversary of her death knocked Bill further off the rails, Scott Schowalter said.
“His whole purpose in life was to take care of Mom,” Scott said. “Then he lost his purpose.”
Craig Schowalter, a health and wellness expert in Ashland, said the struggle to find help for his father put stress on the family. He said there needs to be better understanding about depression in the elderly and more compassion in getting help. Sons and daughters, dealing with their own day-to-day lives, find themselves stretched thin, Craig said.
“Inside, I’m angry,” Craig said. “I’m trying to pay my bills. I’m trying to work.”
“It’s not just a senior who goes through this,” Scott said.
There was no counseling offered for their father after the guardrail crash, they said; just 72 hours in a hospital for observation. He was let go.
“It’s treat and street,” Craig said. “They turn you right back out.”
“We were just heartbroken,” Scott said from his home in Hermantown.
Then the unimaginable happened again.
Bill secretly purchased a car and tried to end his life for the second time in two weeks.
Foiling the plan
Bill Schowalter left his home in Hermantown and parked his brand-new Buick LeSabre off Helberg Drive at the Duluth port. He then walked through the gate at the Clure Public Marine Terminal. The car was too nice to drive into the chilly water of Lake Superior, he thought. His kids might want it.
He walked methodically down the center of the dock near the towering gantry cranes used to unload cargo ships. The slip next to the terminal warehouses was ship-less this Friday morning, Nov. 1.
Zoran Pedisic, an employee at Lake Superior Warehousing, was moving castings with a fork truck when he noticed the old man.
“Can I help you?” Pedisic asked when he drove by.
Schowalter didn’t respond.
“This is a little bit fishy,” Pedisic recalled saying to himself.
He asked him again. No response.
Then Schowalter moved to a low wall next to the slip. He swung his feet up and over it to the other side.
Pedisic came close to grabbing him by the back of his coat, but Schowalter tipped himself into the water. He was face-down and showing no signs of saving himself.
Schowalter wanted someone to see him, he later told his sons. He had a lifelong fear of water and didn’t want his body to float away and never be found.
Call to action
“Man overboard,” Pedisic yelled into his radio. Schowalter was floating six feet from him as he frantically played out the options in his mind while standing at the edge of the slip. “He wasn’t fighting.”
Pedisic dove into 45-degree water still wearing his heavy work boots and coveralls.
He pulled Schowalter’s head out of the water and fought to reach a graspable beam along the wall of the slip. He kept yelling for help.
The well-trained warehouse crew showed up with life rings, rope and a stretcher.
“Everybody was there,” Pedisic said.
He had trouble convincing Schowalter that he should be assisting in saving his own life. Without the old man’s help, Pedisic feared he might go down with him.
“Grab the beam. Grab the beam,” Pedisic yelled while struggling to reel Schowalter in.
Finally, Schowalter took heed.
“He held on hard,” Pedisic said.
They forced life rings onto Schowalter’s arms, and the two scooted down the slip to a ladder 30 feet away.
Schowalter was pulled and shoved more than he climbed the ladder himself. But along with grabbing the beam, there were other signs of him coming around from a suicide attempt.
“He changed his mind,” Steve Tuura said. He and Jarad Christianson were two of the first co-workers to assist Pedisic.
“He grabbed my hand and didn’t let go,” Tuura said.
It’s been estimated that less than five minutes elapsed from when Schowalter went into the water and when his waterlogged frame was brought back to the dock.
Police and emergency crews arrived. Schowalter was put on a stretcher. Police wanted to interview Pedisic.
He didn’t linger long in his soaked clothing. He was colder now in the open air.
Pedisic, Tuura and Christianson told their tale of rescue 12 days later to a Coast Guard officer who plans to send their story to Washington for a special commendation.
To hear Pedisic tell it, the Schowalter adventure was all in a day’s work. Coast Guard Officer in Charge Robert Pump asked him what he did next after Schowalter went away in an ambulance.
“I went home, took a shower and came back to work,” Pedisic deadpanned.
Tuura went to check on Schowalter’s LeSabre outside the gate and met with something “creepy.”
On the radio blared Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely.”
Marvis Boelter and Bill Schowalter met in 1938 in St. Paul. She came from a wealthy family. He grew up “dirt-poor,” Scott said.
“But he was good-looking,” he said.
He got the girl, and after World War II, in 1945, they were married.
“They had a great life,” Scott said.
They raised three children in South St. Paul — Scott, Craig and Valerie.
Bill worked as a crane operator for street utility projects.
It was a fairly normal postwar upbringing, Scott said.
“He was a typical World War II male,” Craig said, meaning his father was quiet and not very expressive.
“The emotional connections were not there,” he said, but the family as a whole “has always been tight.”
When Bill retired in 1985, the couple moved to Webster, Wis. When Marvis started having health problems, the couple found themselves traveling to Duluth for care. They decided to move to Duluth in 1991. Then they were some of the first people to move into the senior housing cooperative called Gramercy Park in Hermantown in 2000.
The death of Marvis in September 2012 brought Bill’s stifled emotion to the surface, Craig said.
“He just came to this realization,” he said. “He really did love her. He just wasn’t always good at showing it.”
The last few years were hard on the family as Marvis went to a nursing home. They visited her daily.
“It was real slow death,” Scott said. “It took a toll on all of us.”
The Schowalter children saw a change in their father the past year. And then the anniversary of the death this fall only heightened fears about their father.
“Dad tried to isolate himself,” Craig said. “We saw the pattern. We might have thought ‘Oh, that’s just Dad.’ Well, what if it isn’t?”
“He drove four times to see our sister in the Twin Cities,” Scott said. “Imagine; 90 years old.”
Then there was the incident west of Hinckley, near Mora, in October.
“Dad wasn’t ready,” Scott said of leaving the hospital after only 72 hours there with no counseling. There was nothing they could do, he said.
The frustration was fraying the family connections, Craig said. “Things unweaved.”
Bill bought the car four days later and then drove to the port.
Craig said he was sick with emotion after the suicide attempts. His urge to relate to his father was being stymied by that stoic presence he met in childhood.
“Oh, God, it was like ‘You’re a creep and now you’re a freak,’” Craig said of the drowning attempt.
But the estranged son now realizes his father has endured a “profound experience. I melted down,” he said, understanding the depression his father has felt now that he is getting help.
“Now I hug him and kiss him and tell him I love him,” Craig said. “I look in his eyes. He’s a different human being.”
A natural empathy
“I just couldn’t let him die like that,” Pedisic said of the sight of Bill Schowalter face-down in the water.
He thought of his own 84-year-old father as he prepared to dive in.
The action didn’t hit Pedisic emotionally until later that night. He ended up talking with his father about the rescue.
“He didn’t approve (of) that at all,” Pedisic said. “He said ‘You have a family you need to think about.’”
His father has his own story of working on a tanker ship when an explosion occurred in the hold. Two men died and another perished when he tried to go down to help. Pedisic’s father was next in line to go down but was stopped. It was sure death to do so. But he knew of the impulse to help a fellow human being, Pedisic said.
“He understood the situation I was in,” Pedisic said.
The 55-year-old grew up on an island off Croatia with a population of 120 people. He became a sailor on the Yugo Line in his 20s. It made four stops in Duluth, where in 1982 he met a girl, spending only a few hours but feeling a bit smitten. His ship was one of the last to leave the port that season.
“I left a phone number,” Pedisic said with a growing smile. “You know; if you’re ever in Croatia.”
Kathy Miketin knew that despite being in different countries, Zoran was the one for her. Her family had ties to that part of the world.
“Somehow we were meant to be together,” she said.
In two months’ time, she was in Croatia knocking on his door. After living there for a time, they eventually returned to the place where they met. Zoran has worked at the port for 17 years.
The bond between the two remains. It’s one that shapes the empathy Kathy feels for Schowalter and his depression after losing his wife.
“It’s easy to see how someone could feel like that,” she said.
When her husband called her right after pulling Schowalter from the water, Kathy wasn’t surprised to hear that her husband helped someone in trouble.
“When I hung up the phone, I started crying,” she said. “I got scared.”
The thought of losing him was jarring.
The couple has three children.
“I’m proud of him,” Kathy said of her husband’s action. “That’s in his character.”
Jonathan Lamb, the general manager for Lake Superior Warehousing, said Pedisic isn’t so different from the 16 other men who work the docks.
“They have each other’s backs,” Lamb said. “Zoran knew he could jump in the water and have help.”
That’s the Coast Guard credo, Pump said.
“We never do anything alone,” he said.
“Every guy here is that way,” said Tim Rogers, another worker who helped at the scene.
The men said it was an oddity that there was a safety drill planned for later that day. And Pedisic had just returned from a vacation in Mexico only to find himself plunged into an icy backwater of Lake Superior.
“It was cold,” Pedisic said, “but it didn’t hit so hard, as I thought. I was not thinking about the cold.”
He was thinking of saving a life.
“He knew exactly what he was doing,” Pedisic said of Schowalter. “He just didn’t know someone was going to jump in after him.”
“You swam pretty good with all of your (work gear) on,” Christianson said.
“I think I’d do it again,” Pedisic said.
“You might want to grab a life jacket next time,” Tuura ribbed. And dump the cellphone.
“I will never forget that,” Pedisic said of seeing Schowalter in the water. “It’ll stay with me the rest of my life.
“It could have been one of us.”
Saving a family
Scott said Pedisic can take full credit for saving his father.
“That is what’s helped him,” Scott said. “It’s a very dark thing that happened.”
The family later came to the port with cash tucked into thank-you cards, Scott said.
“We hugged and talked; it was very touching,” he said. “(Zoran) is such a genuine person.”
“They were pleased,” Pedisic said plainly. “If they think we did something good for them, that’s great.”
Bill gave full permission to his sons to talk about the events of the past month. He has been in therapy and is a willing participant in dealing with his depression.
“Dad wants to pass something on,” Scott said of why the family is telling his story.
Craig said we need to treat our elders in the American Indians tradition, with respect. He said there’s a scary lesson for everyone through his father’s depression. People of all ages deal with it at one point or another, he said, and everyone deserves to have social supports in place.
“Support before putting a car into a guardrail,” he said. “Before something happens.”
Bill has “settled,” Scott said. He woke up remembering the cold water, said he was sorry and did a 180-degree turn.
Sell the house, sell the car, Scott recalled him saying. He wants to go to an assisted-living facility.
“I have to be with people,” Bill told his sons.
The ordeal has changed Craig’s perspective on wellness. He said his father has made him aware that people need socialization to heal. He said no one should reach the level of crisis he and his family has suffered. Dysfunction enters in, “everybody’s scared; everybody’s confused.”
“That scarring may not ever heal,” Craig said.
And he knows his family isn’t alone.
“What Dad did is in all of us,” he said.