Robert Schaper: Straighten up and fly right

"There are lots of bumps in life," says Robert Schaper. "I believe we're put on this earth to help each other over them."

For him, the first bump came early. His mother Stella was a "sophisticated prostitute," a fact he discerned when he was very young. Her johns didn't pay her in cash, but generously returned her favors in other financial ways.

Schaper was born on Sept. 29, 1939, in Hettinger, N.D., a town of about 3,000 people. The last time he visited, there were still no fast-food restaurants, and a car dealership stood where his family's house once was.

Schaper has one older sister, whom he hasn't seen in years.

His father Albert worked as a section foreman for Union Pacific Railroad, his employer of 40 years, laying railroad ties. He was transferred to Seattle when Bob was 4 years old, and Bob has lived here ever since. He grew up in West Seattle and now lives on lower Queen Anne.

Schaper does not know his heritage. He never met any of his grandparents, and his parents never talked about it. He guesses he is part German.

Although Schaper says he felt dispossessed for much of his childhood, it wasn't all bad. "My bad experiences made me appreciate the good things," he says. One good thing was attending Seattle Rainiers baseball games at Sicks Stadium on Saturdays, when kids got in free. He sat in the left-field bleachers and kept track of each player's batting average.

Schaper left home at age 14. "My family was a wonderful dysfunctional deal," he says wryly. He moved into someone else's basement and continued to attend Madison Junior High School.

In 1956, at age 17, he got a job at Albertson's in West Seattle and, to avoid the draft, joined the Washington State Air National Guard. He served as a cook in the active reserve for six years, attending drills two days a month plus summer camps.

Committed to coin-op

Schaper graduated from West Seattle High School in 1957 and went on to Seattle Pacific University. His goal was a degree in mechanical engineering, but he attended for only two quarters before he transferred to Seattle University, where he flunked out after only one quarter.

He went into business with his landlord; together they owned 200 vending machines. He talked his way back into SPU, this time majoring in business. He met and fell in love with fellow student Carol King. The couple became engaged in 1960, but then (another big bump) Carol broke up with him. She wanted to be a missionary and he did not - he was committed to the vending-machine business.

His second stint at SPU lasted a year and a half. In that time his top GPA was 1.5, and he was asked to leave. He met and married another woman, to whom he remained married for 33 years. He and his wife had one son, Scott. (Now 35, Scott is an electrical engineer and a "character and a half," says Schaper.)

Flying high

After marrying, Schaper got out of the vending-machine business and worked for Boeing as an industrial engineer, which required no degree. Perhaps because he worked in the world of aviation, in 1966 he took up flying. He has since logged more than 3,200 flying hours. He prefers single-engine planes; the Cessna 172 Skyhawk is his favorite.

Eventually he got his Associate Arts degree from South Seattle Community College. In 1981, he enrolled in SPU for the third time. It took him five years to earn his degree in psychology, by which time his son Scott was a teenager. Bob jokes that during this time he also received a "doctorate in night-loading" - he worked his way through school by loading and unloading trucks at night for Zellerbach Paper Company, which, believing Bob was finally serious about his education, paid 75 percent of his tuition.

One of his psychology professors, Dr. Myrtleen Thompson, was his mentor. "I wasn't a good student," he says, "but she had confidence in me and encouraged me." Though it came late in his life, her positive influence on him made its mark, and he says he will never forget her.

After graduation, he worked for a year at the Drug Abuse Council of Snohomish County in Everett, then for several years as a chemical dependency counselor in a rehab program at Catholic Community Services.

Unlike 85 percent of chemical-dependency counselors, he has never had a drug or alcohol problem. Did he lack credibility with his clients because of this? "Yes, until they figured out I'm a risk-taker," he says. Clients seemed to be able to make analogies.

In 1991, Bob started his present job as a social worker for the Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS), at the Community Service Office in White Center. Coincidentally, when the job began, it was located in the very same building that once housed Albertson's, where Bob worked as a teenager (the office has since moved).

"Community service" means welfare. Bob decides who does and does not receive welfare, based on the Washington Administrative Code and reviews of psychological, physical and chemical-dependency evaluations (he has referred more than 2,500 people to rehab).

"I don't think the world owes anyone a living," he says passionately. Some clients disagree, and threaten to shoot him or to blow up the building if they are denied welfare.

This doesn't faze him. "I represent the taxpayer," he continues, "so I want to make smart decisions. But I also want clients to feel better when they walk out of my office than when they walked in. I'll bust my butt for someone if I have confirmation that their need is real."

This happens often enough to keep him going, and he is appreciated. Besides receiving many thank-you letters from grateful clients, he was named 2004 Employee of the Year at the DSHS facility in White Center. The citation mentions his experience, wisdom, dedication, integrity and compassion.

Reunited (and it feels so good)

Meanwhile, Carol King, his bygone fiancée, had also married someone else, moved to Michigan and raised two daughters (she now has two grandchildren as well). In 1994, now divorced, she came back to Seattle for her 85-year-old mother's GED graduation.

While in town, she called Bob. "After all these years," she says, "I couldn't get him off my mind." It so happens that he was getting divorced, too. Once it was final, Bob and Carol married, 34 years after they were originally engaged.

At 66, past the usual age of retirement, Bob still works at DSHS, and Carol is an elementary reading specialist in the Highline School District. They are putting in more time to get better pensions and continued benefits, especially medical coverage.

Bob is diabetic. He has to inject himself in the stomach with insulin several times a day (Carol points out the tiny red spot on Bob's crisp blue shirt), as well as check his blood-sugar level many times a day. "But I've never missed a day of work because of it," Bob says.

The FAA requires that he check his blood sugar every hour when he flies, but that does not deter him. Carol became a passenger on his quest to land a plane in all 50 states. A small photo album, containing 50 photos of him or the two of them in small airports, attests to his success. Their last landing was in Bennington, Vt., in July 2000.

Not all of Bob's flying has been for pleasure. In the 1970s he sponsored inmates at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. He piloted a shuttle of relatives, friends and other sponsors to and from the prison, sometimes making three flights a day.

When Bob was growing up, neighbors predicted he'd end up in Walla Walla. He's been there all right, but not as a prisoner. He's proud to have proved them wrong.

"I did things the hard way," he says, "but that's because of my screwups. You have to take ownership of your plight." He has, and it's not all bad.[[In-content Ad]]