By Jonathon Van Maren
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending the funeral of Joe Scheidler, the legendary activist dubbed “the Godfather of the Pro-Life Movement,” in Chicago. For nearly half a century, Joe Scheidler was everywhere. On Monday, he was finally laid to rest at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois.
I’m not sure exactly how many people came to pay their respects at his wake for the final viewing, but it was easily near a thousand; maybe more. The line stretched down the hall and through a side-room as folks lingered near the casket and knelt beside it, saying their goodbyes. Photos of Scheidler as an enormous, handsome, strapping young man stood next to a blown-up image of Joe as an old man, sporting a cowboy hat instead of his usual fedora. Even the longest and strongest lives come to an end. All flesh is grass. Memento Mori.
As I headed out of the funeral home after paying my respects, I noticed a former abortionist in the lineup, and it was a perfect snapshot of the pro-life movement. Here was a man who had done abortions waiting, likely for hours, to say goodbye to a man who had fought abortion tooth and nail for nearly fifty years. He, like so many others, was welcomed into a movement of converts, second chances, and men and women like Joe and Ann Scheidler. It is a beautiful thing.
The service was held at St. John Cantius Church, and it was the closest the pro-life movement has to a state funeral. I’ve known very few great men, the priest told the audience, but Joe was one of them. He understood about abortion what Lincoln understood about slavery: If abortion isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong. He looked around. I’m sure we, here, can agree that abortion is probably the world’s greatest evil. Pro-life activists who had flown in and driven from across the country nodded in agreement.
Surveying the crowd, it appeared that nearly the entire activist wing of the movement was present. Scott Klusendorf of Life Training Institute; Mark Harrington of Created Equal; Troy Newman of Operation Rescue; the entire Pro-Life Action League Team; Monica Miller of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society; Lynn Mills, the Michigan activist who shut down Dr. Jack “Death” Kevorkian; Jill Stanek; Andy Moore and his son Scheidler, named for Joe and Ann; and many, many others. Some of the veterans there were nearly as old as Joe was, and the fellowship was filled with stories of past fights and battles won and lost.
Joe Scheidler was an American classic, and as his casket was borne from the cathedral by his sons, the attendees sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic as it thundered from the pipe organ overhead. Outside, the streets were lined with pro-lifers bearing signs, from a banner featuring the cover of his 1985 book Closed: 99 Ways To Stop Abortion and the words “Joe Scheidler Rest in Peace” to handmade signs thanking him for his life of service. One young man hoisted a placard with the words “Joe Scheidler is My Pro-Life Action Hero.” At the cemetery, the former Navy man was buried with military honors. A naval officer played Taps; the American flag on his casket was folded and presented to the widow.
One story from Peter Scheidler’s eulogy stood out. Those of you who have read Joe’s memoir Racketeer for Life will remember the story of his decision to leave his teaching post in Chicago to head to another state—but then changing his mind when he found a little pink note from Ann, then a senior, on his desk: Don’t go, it read. He didn’t, they married, and the rest is history. As the family was saying their goodbyes last week, Peter said, he overheard his mother tell his father as she knelt by his side: “Thank you for reading my little note.”
Joe Scheidler’s farewell was a fitting testament to the man and his legacy, and I couldn’t help but think of my favorite lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses:
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
For anyone interested, here’s a conversation I had with Joe a couple of years ago about his long career as a pro-life activist. He had, as you might expect, some incredible stories: