Retired Sebastopol minister who marched for civil rights in Alabama in 1960s dies at 86

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Don Schilling, a soft-spoken and unfailingly reverential minister who in 1965 took to the streets of Selma, Alabama, as a civil-rights activist impelled by Martin Luther King Jr. and stood his ground despite great peril, died Friday at his home in Sebastopol. He was 86.

Schilling’s nonviolent agitation in Alabama led to decades of work against war and injustice and in service to children and adults stuck in, or headed for, despair.

Schilling was watching TV news at home in the mostly black Marin County community of Marin City in March 1965. He saw state troopers beat civil-rights demonstrators who’d marched toward the Edmund Pettis Bridge, a link to the state capitol in Montgomery. Schilling heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. plead for help from people of conscience.

Two days later, Schilling was in Selma. He wrote in his memoir, “Shortly after my arrival, I had dinner in a local cafe in the Negro part of town.”

After sharing a meal with several other out-of-town ministers who’d answered King’s call, Schilling set off in one direction from the cafe and several other pastors, including East Coast Rev. James Reeb, headed in the opposite direction.

Schilling learned later that almost immediately the other pastors were attacked by some local white men. Reeb, 32, was beaten so severely that he died a short while later.

The murder, and the subsequent march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge and on to Montgomery, helped force major change.

“It wasn’t long after that the Voting Rights Act was passed,” Schilling said in a 2013 interview with The Press Democrat. “So I think that what we did in Selma was pivotal to the life of the nation.”

Married for 58 years to Sebastopol attorney and activist Dee Schilling, Don Schilling was forced by a serious back ailment to retire at 62 as minister of the Sebastopol Methodist Church. For nearly 20 years, he’d operated a mentoring program that paired at-risk Sonoma County youth with high school or college students living more productive, secure lives.

In retirement, Schilling went into county jails and state prisons to visit with and minister to inmates.

“He had just a deep, abiding passion for social justice, the poor, the outsider, you might say,” said Gene Nelson, retired pastor of Sebastopol Community Church.

Schilling’s wife and partner in faith-based activism said the former semi-professional baseball player and avid water and snow skier was also a great sports fan to the end.

“He was big into watching the Warriors,” Dee Schilling said. “I’m going to have to watch the Warriors win the championship by myself, which is sad.”

At the same time, she said she’s grateful her husband died gently and knowing, though he wouldn’t say so, that through his advocacy and service he’d contributed to advancing social justice and to bettering the lives of others.

“I don’t think he would ever have taken any credit for himself,” Dee Schilling said. “He was excessively humble. But God used him in extraordinary ways.”

Donald Schilling was born in 1932 in Houghton, Michigan, and was 5 when Gene and Grace Schilling moved their family to Montana. Gene Schilling became the dean of engineering at Montana State University.

Don Schilling intended to go into engineering, too. As a kid he liked the sciences, and baseball even more.

He would recall getting an early taste of racism while playing a game in high school in Bozeman. He wrote in a memoir that his team traveled to Deer Lodge, Montana, for a game and was told at a motel that the team’s one black player could not stay there.

“So we ended up sleeping in the city jail,” Schilling wrote. “The whole situation made us so angry that the next day we dominated the Deer Lodge team and beat them badly.”

He went on to play baseball at Montana State, and was a junior chemical engineer and a shortstop with the semi-pro Ponca City (Oklahoma) Jets when he felt called to the ministry.

Even during his four years at San Francisco Theological Seminary, he played pro ball during the summers with the Deming (Washington) Loggers.

Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1958, Schilling was hired by Fremont Church in Sacramento to direct an outreach center in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. It was in Sacramento that he met and fell in love with the former Dee Wheadon.

They married in August of 1960. Two years later, Don Schilling was invited to apply to be minister of the predominantly black St. Andrew Presbyterian church in Marin City, near Mill Valley and Sausalito. He got the job.

As pastor, Schilling developed a summer day camp program for children of Marin City, and he found himself compelled to join in the civil-rights movement, both locally and nationally.

In 1964, he traveled twice to Mississippi to register African-American voters and stand against the Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. He wrote to his parents, “The Negroes are literally living in a police state where they are being arrested, threatened, and intimidated daily for doing nothing more than nonviolently pressing for their legitimate rights.”

Schilling would remain a voice for justice, and a source of encouragement to youth and adults in crisis, throughout his life.

“He was committed and determined, and yet he was always compassionate and cared about people — including the people who opposed him,” said his former co-pastor at the Marin City church, Jim Symons.

He added, “Don was the most peaceful guy, very serene. But if you got his dander up, he was pretty tough. He was just an incredible guy.”

In addition to his wife in Sebastopol, Schilling is survived by his daughter, Lori Schilling Davis of Davis; his son, Shannon Schilling of Portland; and four grandchildren.

There will be a Celebration of Resurrection and Recollection for Schilling at 2 p.m. on March 30 at Sebastopol Methodist Church.

Schilling’s family suggests memorial donations to the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, 310 8th St. Suite 310, Oakland 94607 or im4humanintegrity.org/donate; Church World Service, 475 Riverside Dr., Suite 700, New York, NY 10115 or cwsglobal.org/donate; the Equal Justice Initiative, 122 Commerce St., Montgomery, AL 36104 or eji.org; or Sebastopol United Methodist Church Mission Fund, 500 N. Main St., Sebastopol 95472-3498

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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