Jeff Schilling saw Jesus in everybody. He greeted the students and staff at Mary of Lourdes School in the halls, always asking how their day was going and listening to what they said.
Schilling, who died unexpectedly last May, served as the custodian at the Little Falls elementary school for 20 years. But to the community, he was much more.
“Jeff was the soul of our school because of his ability to see God in all people,” said Margie Markkanen, a kindergarten teacher at the school. “He always wanted the best for each of us and everyone who walked into the building.”
Students, parents and staff gathered Sept. 21 to honor Schilling during a school Mass. They also blessed and planted a special tree in his honor in front of the school.
During the Mass, students recalled what they loved about him:
“He liked to celebrate the holidays and didn’t mind if there was glitter everywhere,” one boy said.
“He loved and trusted in God and believed that we should run toward our faith because it is a safe place to be,” a girl remembered.
“He would wear funny clothes, like tie-dye, to show us he wasn’t afraid to look silly,” another boy said.
For the special day, the students and staff wore tie-dye T-shirts with Schilling’s favorite saying on the back.
“Jeff’s most favorite saying of all was ‘Life is Good.’ That’s why it is emblazoned on the back of the shirts we had made in memory of him,” Markkanen said.
After the Mass, the community gathered around a small Prairie Fire Flowering Crab tree as Father Ben Kociemba, pastor of St. Mary and Our Lady of Lourdes parishes in Little Falls and Holy Family in Belle Prairie, gave a blessing.
Before Mike Markkanen, the school’s current custodian, placed the tree in its permanent spot, some M&Ms that were left on Schilling’s desk were placed where the tree would be planted. Several staff members remembered that he always had candy for them.
Schilling’s wife, Leah, put the dirt around the tree. A stone from their farm, engraved with his name, sits at the tree’s base.
Schilling, who had just celebrated his 60th birthday, was a lifelong member of Holy Family Parish. He had worked as a mechanic until macular degeneration took his eyesight.
“The job at MOL was the perfect fit,” Markkanen said. “Most of the children at school had to be told that he couldn’t see. He knew his way around our school so well that it was hard to tell.
“Jeff loved our school so much,” she added. “He loved the history of it, the ‘old’-ness of it, the spirit of it. He was our school’s heart — and we still miss him every single day.”