COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In his century on earth, John Schmidt lived enough to fill dozens of people’s lives.
A prolific athlete, skilled musician, actor, professor, television personality and maple syrup farmer, Schmidt excelled in his every endeavor. He left bits of his legacy all over Ohio and the country: He was a pole vaulter at Ohio State University, Broadway performer in New York, nationally recognized tree farmer and one of Ohio’s first television hosts.
Schmidt died on Christmas Eve at his home in Sycamore Hills, two weeks before his 101st birthday. Despite his seemingly unending list of accomplishments and experiences, Schmidt’s family remembers him most for his kindness, passionate personality and joy — and his sweet maple syrup.
“You could always count on him for a smile, never-ending,” Sarah Yanni, one of Schmidt’s grandchildren, said. “I don’t think I ever saw him even the least bit cranky.”
An All-America athlete
By the time Schmidt arrived on Ohio State’s campus in 1939, he was already a state champion and high school record-breaker in pole vaulting. He continued his athletic prowess on Ohio State’s track and field team, lettering every season from 1942 to ’45 and reaching vaulted heights of 14 feet.
Schmidt left school in 1943 to serve in the military during World War II – but retired from service before leaving basic training due to a burst appendix. Upon returning to campus the next year, Schmidt claimed the role of track team captain and earned All-America honors for pole vaulting.
Schmidt’s pole vaulting history boasts several championship titles and national placements, including placing second and third in the U.S. Nationals in 1944 and 1945, respectively. He won the NCAA outdoor championships in 1944 and the Big Ten indoor and outdoor pole vaulting championships multiple times during his athletic career.
In 1945, Ohio State newspaper The Lantern called Schmidt “perhaps the greatest pole-vaulter in the nation” with a “disarming laugh that seems to originate from the very spikes of his track shoes.”
Schmidt’s athleticism was not lost on his alma mater; in 1998, he was inducted into the Ohio State Athletic Hall of Fame – just the second pole vaulter in university history to join the prestigious ranks of inductees.
A born performer
Yanni said of all the things her grandfather was, he was first and foremost a showman.
“He wanted to be remembered, I believe,” Yanni said.
In addition to reaching top heights as a pole vaulter, Schmidt achieved musical excellence while studying at Ohio State’s School of Music. His baritone voice soared along WOSU’s radio waves, across local theater stages and in the University Symphonic Choir.
Schmidt told a Lantern reporter in 1949 that his father – a rural sociology professor at the university – wanted him to follow in his farming footsteps. But Schmidt always knew his heart was on stage.
It was on the stage and set of the musical “Polonaise” in 1945 that Schmidt met his future wife, Mary Woiceske. When they married in 1948, they played opposite each other in the Broadway hit “Brigadoon.”
Schmidt left Broadway in 1953 after performing in four shows in New York and on tour, at some points even conducting the chorus. But his love of theater never dwindled; in his retirement, he performed with what is now called the Senior Repertory of Ohio, going on statewide tours and to Germany with the Repertory’s original productions.
Always the performer, Schmidt volunteered his acting abilities to the Ohio State College of Medicine, where he would pretend to be a patient so medical students could practice evaluations, diagnosis and their bedside manner. And he never stopped singing, Yanni said.
“Every family event, anytime I saw him really, he would break out into song,” Yanni said.
In front of and behind the camera
Having worked at WOSU for most of his undergraduate career, it only made sense that when Schmidt returned to Columbus in 1955, he rejoined the radio station.
He played a critical role in the future of broadcast: On Feb. 20, 1956, Schmidt’s face was the first thing viewers saw on the newly-launched WOSU-TV.
While pursuing further education at Ohio State, earning another bachelor’s degree in vocal music and a master’s in radio and television, Schmidt continued to work for WOSU-TV and radio as a host, singer, sports commentator and special programming supervisor.
And he and Mary continued to perform together – they hosted “Songs for a Summer Evening” from 1956 to ’60, singing sweet tunes as a duet on WOSU-TV.
For 20 years until his retirement in 1983, Schmidt produced, narrated and starred in hundreds of educational films for the Ohio Cooperative Extension Service. In his free time during that period, he taught speech and television courses at Ohio State, eventually earning the prestigious title of professor emeritus.
Returning to his roots
After his father’s death in 1965, Schmidt returned to the family farm, Overlook Hills. In true Schmidt fashion, he was a preeminent farm manager and maple syrup producer.
John and Mary Schmidt were named Ohio Tree Farmers of the Year in 1988 and National Tree Farmers of the Year in 1989 – the latter award landing the Schmidts in Washington, D.C., to meet then-President George H. W. Bush. The Schmidts remained active members of the National and Ohio Forestry Associations until their deaths.
The house on the sprawling farm in Bainbridge is filled to the roof with memories, Yanni said. On family vacations, she and her cousins would crowd in a sugar shack, breathlessly awaiting a warm, sweet breakfast.
“I remember us all gathering up around the shack and everybody tasting the fresh-made maple syrup, and waking up in the morning and grandpa’s making pancakes,” Yanni said. “It’s like something you can never really recreate.”
Leaving behind a large legacy
When Schmidt was diagnosed with leukemia several years ago, Yanni said the family was already discussing the future of the farm. The sugar shack where the Schmidts shared memories over maple syrup burned down with the original farmhouse about two decades ago – stopping syrup production.
Yanni said family members knew they wanted to continue the family farm’s – and Schmidt’s – legacy. The family is even more determined to restart the maple syrup farm in the wake of Schmidt’s death, Yanni said.
The family holds on to their beloved patriarch in other ways, too. He curated a love of music in his children, with one of his sons pursuing music in college. “Everybody” in the family tried their hand at sports, hoping to achieve something close to Schmidt’s greatness.
But what Yanni said her grandfather impressed most on his family were his character attributes: His willingness to help others, no matter the personal cost; his persistence in seeing things through; his unending love for his family.
“I aspire to be anything close to the kind of human he was,” Yanni said.
In the last few months of his life, when dementia progressed rapidly and he could no longer remember Yanni’s name, Yanni said her grandfather radiated the same kind, bright energy he always did.
He’d even sing tunes from performances of decades’ past, his warm, round baritone voice filling up the room.