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Image: Brian Smale

When Phil Scheier moved to the Seattle area in 1975 to save the ailing Jewish Transcript newspaper, he was already 60 years old, with a newspaper career and 65 World War II Air Force missions behind him. “They were hoping one miracle might turn it around,” Scheier says. Thanks to him, the Jewish newspaper got a new lease on life, which made it to its 90th birthday in 2014 before shuttering in early 2015. When I met with Scheier at the modest Shoreline apartment he shares with his wife, Sophie, naturally he wanted to discuss the demise of the paper, which he accepts as both unfortunate and inevitable.   

The world is a different place now than it was in 1915, when Scheier was born in Morristown, New Jersey. Part of the Greatest Generation, Scheier signed up for military service and happily reported to duty in January of 1942. “I didn’t want to wait for the draft. I knew I’d have to go in. I was single,” he says. “I knew I didn’t want to march with a pack on my back in the mud. I’m very fastidious about that nonsense. So I knew it was going to be the Air Force.”

Scheier, however, suffered from flat feet and ended up in public relations in Mississippi, where he started an army newspaper and radio show. “It seemed to go very well,” he says. “But I really wanted to get into flying somehow.” With his connections with the brass, and the army’s need for more crew, Scheier managed to get himself into flight training. In Savannah, Georgia, he learned typing and Morse code, which became his ticket to a position as radio operator/aerial gunner.

“It’s like a cattle show,” Scheier says about pilots picking crew for their planes. “They look for someone who won’t freeze under attack.” Luke Hargroves, the pilot of a B-26 bomber named Shirley Bee, after his fiancée, came up to Scheier. “He said, ‘I’d like you to be my radio op/gunner,’” Scheier says. “That’s how I was assigned to his plane.”

After training at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Scheier and his crew got their first overseas assignment. “I didn’t want to go to the Japanese islands,” Scheier says. “I wanted to go to Europe. I wanted to kill Nazis. Lots of them. Germans. I wanted to bomb their goddamn cities. Which we did.”

Their first stop was Greenland, where the runway was an uphill steel strip around a blind corner, which, if missed, would result in the plane crashing into an icy wall. Once the weather cleared, the crew began its bombing missions. They only had one close call, Scheier says, landing on a bombed-out runway in France. “The pilot had time to yell out, ‘Brace yourself for crash!’” he recalls. “And we all grabbed and held on. As soon as we landed the wheels caught, and we lost our wheels.” They scrambled out of the jet and waited for the explosion, which never came. But the Shirley Bee was wrecked.

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Flying High
Scheier, far left, shoots the breeze with his crew under the Shirley Bee.

Equipped with a fancy dual-control plane, Scheier’s crew continued pushing the enemy back with the allies. With the Germans retreating, the Air Force announced that anyone who had completed more than 65 missions could return to the Zone of the Interior. “And we knew that was the US of A,” Scheier says. “I decided, the hell with it, I’m going home.” With a simple salute, Scheier’s military career was over, but not before he snuck into Paris to watch Charles de Gaulle parade through the city.

Back on American soil, Scheier got his first job writing sports stories for a small paper in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. On a visit to a cousin at Yale Medical Center, Scheier popped into the New Haven Register, and asked his cousin to wait for him. Twenty minutes later, he came out with a job. Life at the Register was good, with Scheier’s stories populating the front pages regularly, until his brother invited him to visit his fiancée at her house, in Boston. “I went there and I met Sophie, her younger sister,” Scheier says. “We were just horsing around, but that blossomed into real love.” And that’s how two brothers married two sisters.

Forty years have passed since Phil and Sophie decided to leave the New England winters behind for the Pacific Northwest. For Scheier’s 100th birthday last August, his family threw a party and made a t-shirt with some of his best-known quips, such as “better to own the newspaper than to work for it” and “never complain, never explain.” “He actually rarely, if ever, complains about anything, never moaning or groaning about aches and pains or other consequences of aging,” says his son, Robert Scheier. “He is always looking ahead and to how he can make the most of each day.”

After Scheier retired in the 1980s, he began teaching computer skills to older adults. “I would always make a solemn promise,” he says. “At the end of this class, you will produce your first printed document. And they did.” He and Sophie own two computers and a Nook and stay on top of the news, including coverage of Israel, a country he passionately supports. “Israel’s always being attacked. Always,” he says. “Use all of your skills to stay alive. That’s number one, two, and three. You don’t depend on niceties.”

As for his own trick to living such a long, healthy life, Scheier has few answers — other than staying “a clean-cut kid.” “How do you become 101 years old and still live?” he asks. “Beyond me.”

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