Paul Schell's sudden death leaves Whidbey heartbroken

A regular at Langley's Useless Bay Coffee Company and a staunch supporter of local organizations, the former mayor's premature death leaves a big hole in his small Whidbey Island town.
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Paul Schell, as mayor in 1999

A regular at Langley's Useless Bay Coffee Company and a staunch supporter of local organizations, the former mayor's premature death leaves a big hole in his small Whidbey Island town.

The death of Paul Schell, who passed away on July 27 due to complications from heart surgery, has left his hometown of Langley shocked and saddened. It was a town that he truly loved. Numerous projects he worked on during his life will become part of his legacy, including The Inn at Langley, Boatyard Inn and his Second Street building.

My husband and I met Paul and Pam Schell shortly after we moved to Langley in 1975. They were devoted to each other, recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary and looked forward to watching the sun rise over the Cascades each morning from their new home on Langley’s waterfront.

Two weeks before Paul died, I met with the Schells at their beloved Inn at Langley. I was working on a magazine feature about the inn, and they were gracious in taking the time to tour me around, updating me on the inn’s changes in the past 25 years. Just before leaving, the ever-generous Paul said, “I’d love to have you and Bob join Pam and me for dinner at the inn sometime.”

The outpouring of love and respect for Paul is everywhere, from the numerous postings on Facebook to the morning conversations at Useless Bay Coffee Company where he and Pam were regulars — including Sunday morning breakfasts.

In a Facebook post to Pam Schell, Langley City Council member and Brackenwood Gallery owner Rene Neff shared her sentiments: “I am so happy I had the opportunity many Sunday mornings for four-plus years to chat with you and Paul. As my family and friends enjoyed our breakfasts, Paul would share some of his visionary ideas for Langley. His experience and historical perspective gained during a lifetime of public service was invaluable. He was a mentor, a cheerleader for Langley and local businesses and he didn’t just talk about doing something — he jumped in and made things happen. Paul truly cared about Langley, its future and its possibilities.”

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The Inn at Langley. July 29, 2014. Photo by Sue Frause.

Langley real estate broker Gary Piper, who has lived and worked on the island for more than 40 years, was a longtime friend of the Schells. “I silkscreened Paul’s bumper stickers the first time he ran for mayor,” recalled Piper, who said Paul called him every day to keep up to date on what was going on in town. “He was a visionary and a leader — he was for things going in the right direction. He was dynamic until the end and it was a pleasure to be his friend.”

Russell Sparkman of FusionSpark Media and the Langley Center for New Media is among the newer transplants to Langley. His Langley Center Coworks, a shared co-working space, is housed on the top floor of Schell’s Second Street building. “He believed very much in our Coworks concept,” said Sparkman. “Paul helped us by providing space at a reasonable rent. He wanted it to work, because he understood that the kind of arts/culture persona he helped nurture for Langley was one of the key components in attracting IT and knowledge-based professionals.”

Ann Medlock is founder of the Giraffe Heroes Project, a nonprofit that moved its headquarters from New York to Langley in 1985. She said Schell was appalled by how crowded their initial office space in Langley was and wanted to do something about it, so he bought empty lots on Second Street and put up the blue Giraffe Building — complete with a full-sized carved giraffe on the front and giraffe hoofprints in the sidewalk. “I think a key thing about him, along with vision and daring and good values, was his delight in what he could do.” Medlock and her husband, John Graham, said they were stunned by the news of Paul’s passing. “When we heard about his heart surgery, we just assumed he’d make it. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”

Tamar Felton, who has owned The Star Store with her husband Gene since 1984, said Paul would always give a hug in the pasta aisle and ask how business was doing. She credits his passion and commitment to Langley as an integral component of their own success. “Paul was a good guy, a good friend,” said Tamar. “His encouragement was unwavering and enthusiastic. Offering guidance and advice, his counsel and friendship will always be cherished.”

Lynn Willeford, a community activist who owns The Clyde Theatre with her husband Blake, has lived on the island for more than 40 years and is thankful for Schell’s influence on the town. “Paul understood not only the aesthetics of a place, but also how to engender warmth and a sense of community there,” said Willeford. “I thought I’d have years to learn from Paul, and find that I’m really mourning his loss in a way I wouldn’t expect — considering I spent so little time with him. It’s like a spotlight was suddenly switched off.”

The Schells were also instrumental in the establishment and success of Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley. Executive Director Stacie Burgua feels blessed to have had Paul and Pam in her life. The couple served on the Board of Directors over the years, and Burgua said they were tireless in raising millions of dollars. “So much of what makes Langley a wonderful place is related to Paul’s vision of what community should be,” said Burgua. “Whidbey Island Center for the Arts is certainly a shining example of that.” 

Neil Colburn, former Mayor of Langley and owner of Neil’s Clover Patch Cafe since 1986, first met the Schells when they served together on the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts Board. “Aside from my feelings for Pam and daughter Jamie, which are deep, I feel this overwhelming sense of loss. I was always flattered that Paul and Pam called me friend.”

Janet Ploof credits Schell with encouraging her involvement in civic activities during the past 20 years. The Langley Main Street Association president, who has lived on the island with her husband Frank since 1985, said she had faith in Schell’s sense of style. “Langley has developed tastefully and we owe a lot of that to Paul’s love of art, architecture and the great Northwest —everyone is missing Paul.”

Langleyite and Seattle bookstore owner Peter Miller, a longtime friend of the Schells, summed up his feelings in his usual eloquent way: “It is always a loss to lose the one you can legitimately call Mr. Mayor; to lose, as in the scene from Jaws, the one who would say, “Nobody’s swimming!”; to lose a man who sat precisely the same way in Provence as he did in Langley and who plotted, in both places, how to make things better.” 

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Paul Schell (left) and Peter Miller. Fourth of July in Langley, 2004. Photo: Sue Frause.



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