Of Teddy Bears, Alligators, and the Passing of a Great Spirit


By on Mon, July 13, 2009

Sunday afternoon, several hundred folks gathered at the American Legion post to spend a few hours paying collective homage to Rod Schoenlank, who passed away recently just shy of his 88th birthday.

Almost everyone who spends enough time here and there on the Coastside knew Rod, whether directly or indirectly.  His calm, tanned face, long flowing white beard, and colorful attire made him visible to me in many places - especially at cafes such as Cafe Classique, where I first got to know him in El Granada in the ‘90s, and more recently, La Di Da’s, where I learned that we shared July 2nd as our birthdays, and the HMB Coffee Company, where we would sit and chat at the outside tables on sometimes-sunny afternoons.

Always agile physically and mentally, Rod provided a sense of wisdom, and a sense of calmness, and slowly shared the experience of a lifetime of both ordinary and extraordinary times and deeds.

Many stories were exchanged throughout Sunday afternoon, but two stay with me best, and I’d like to mention them.  Numerous friends spoke - of times recent, and times long ago - friends living nearby, and friends who flew in from distant points for this day.  It was said that had this memorial been anywhere in the world, a similar set of people would have materialized, and told similar stories.

One woman described his coaching her while she stood watching the personal tragedy of her home burning to the ground: he told her to experience all of the feelings, to watch closely, to live in the moment and know that it was really happening.  She let the feelings flow, and when it was over - when the house and all the physical possessions within were reduced to ashes - she found that she had come to terms with it, and was ready to move on to rebuilding with no debilitating period of grief.  He apparently taught many to "live in the moment" - to realize that a thing, or a situation "is what it is" - and to act based on such realities.  Alway, friends made clear that they were better off for these perspectives.

I hope many folks who read this and the following, will contribute their stories, too - to share the legacy of one of the area’s Great Spirits - a man who made us all better, just by sharing his good will, his rich experience, and his gentle nature with so many of us.  Here’s the second story, which I’ll do my best to summarize. 

Apparently, Rod was legendary for his annual "teddy bear giveways."  Living on his boat in the harbor, he would open his collection up to all passers-by at Christmas, and perhaps at other times, too.  He would instruct adults as well as children to meet them all, and that "if any one particular teddy bear spoke directly to you, take that teddy bear home - it is yours."  The story goes that Rod one day invited a gentlemen who was walking by to come aboard, and in due course, urged him to visit with the bears.  The gentlemen was uninterested, but Rod advised him that many adults, as well as kids, had truly found themselves spoken to, and insisted he check them out.  He relented.

Two minutes later, the gentlemen emerged not with a teddy bear, but with a small stuffed alligator - and an explanation:  "Some years ago", the man said, "my mother passed away.  And her last words to me were ‘See you later, alligator!’ "

See you later, Rod - requiescat in pace.