- Associated Press - Sunday, June 22, 2014

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Thunderstorms pounded the tin roof of the run-down shed sheltering Willie Schooman and Gavin Rogers on the night two years ago that this odd couple first bonded.

Schooman was reclusive and homeless, at 53 long detached from family and snared by alcoholism.

Rogers, 30, was an adventurous youth minister raised in an upscale Houston suburb. He was homeless, too - for a few weeks, as a spiritual exercise for Lent.

Amid trash piles and lightning strikes, the two made their beds. Neither could know that their friendship would last and that Rogers would wind up as Schooman’s advocate, helping him apply for government assistance, getting him off the streets and later supervising his treatment for mouth cancer.

Schooman’s cancer is terminal. But in recent weeks, both men have been awed at how their chance meeting redeemed Schooman’s final Father’s Day last weekend.

His daughter - given for adoption as a newborn 26 years ago - contacted him in April from her North Texas home. An online search had led her to a San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1lxdbW8) report about him and Rogers.

Father and daughter reunited on Palm Sunday. They had lifetimes to catch up on and reconcile.

“He really was just very quiet” at first, Jennifer Trevino said of their first few minutes together. “I just wondered what he was thinking. And then I saw a smile and I knew he was happy.”

Schooman handed her the band the hospital had put on her wrist when she was born. He stowed it away before her departure - it bears the date and her mother’s name.

The timing, as he endures hospice care in a San Antonio nursing home, couldn’t be sweeter.

“That was a prayer come true,” Schooman said. “I prayed and, through Gavin, a miracle happened. I thought I’d never see her again.”

Child custody authorities had directed the couple to relinquish parental rights. Schooman had worked odd jobs, and both struggled to stay sober. Days after returning from the hospital, Trevino’s mother fell and broke her leg. Her parents adopted their granddaughter and she grew up in their Arlington home.

Schooman split up with Trevino’s mother and soon drifted onto the streets.

Today, Schooman sleeps under the roof of an East Side nursing home. On the hallway side of his small, dimly lit space is his roommate’s bed. The other side of the curtain is his bed, against the window.

Schooman’s oasis is a padded chair at an outdoor patio near the edge of a grassy courtyard.

In its tranquility, he can pull out a Pall Mall and muster enough energy to bring his lighter to spark the end. He takes leisurely drags, peering toward the blue sky from behind sunglasses, his portable radio set to country-western.

Rogers knows to go to the patio if Schooman is not in his room.

He had figured he might make some friends when he went homeless for Lent, maybe get more opportunities to work with street people. But reconnecting a homeless father with his daughter hadn’t seemed likely - Rogers had tried to help his pal with an online search, to no avail.

“This is truly the one thing I didn’t anticipate,” Rogers said about their bond.

They had met at TriPoint, a community center owned by Trinity Baptist Church. Rogers, the church’s youth minister then, was staying at Haven for Hope, the city-backed campus for the homeless and suggested Schooman join him there for the night.

“I’ve got nothing to do and all day to do it,” Schooman told Rogers.

He invited Rogers to bunk at his shed a few days later. In the end, the relationship prolonged Schooman’s life long enough to meet his daughter.

“It was about inviting somebody to walk alongside you,” Rogers said. “Whether it’s at a homeless shelter or eating a meal together with the homeless, if you build a relationship, some amazing things are going to happen.”

After Lent, Rogers let Schooman roll out his sleeping bag on his front porch and sometimes joined him there for the night. Last summer, Rogers set up a dental visit to remove a few of Schooman’s problem teeth. The dentist alerted them to the mouth cancer.

Without health insurance, Schooman couldn’t get proper diagnosis and treatment. Before Rogers left for a three-week missionary trip, he arranged a meeting for Schooman to qualify for Haven’s medical dorm. But Schooman skipped it.

Upon returning, Rogers locked horns and prevailed on his friend, a man not noted for bending to others. This time, they endured a two-day application process at Haven together, filling out forms, waiting in lines, going through evaluations by doctors and social workers and a drug test.

Rogers threw in a pack of Pall Malls to make sure he stuck it out.

In the medical dormitory, Schooman had a coffee bar, three meals a day and fewer roommates than at other dorms. He secured government health care and disability funding. For a couple of months, it worked well. Then, Schooman’s frequent absences at night made Rogers nervous he would lose his spot in the dorm.

One autumn morning around 4 a.m., Schooman called Rogers from a hospital room to say he was about to go into surgery. And then he hung up.

Rogers raced over. His friend had collapsed at a bus stop. His government assistance covered once-unaffordable surgery to remove his teeth, install a feeding tube and set up radiation and chemotherapy. It also covered his rent at the nursing home where Schooman relocated last January.

And on April 11, his daughter keyed his name into Google.

It was the second time she had tried. When she was about 13, she had found a phone number for her father’s older brother, Butch Schooman.

The brothers have had an on-and-off-again relationship, but Butch agreed to hand her phone number to her father, noting his homeless state. Nothing happened.

By 2012, Trevino’s grandparents had both died. It renewed interest in finding her father.

Google took her to the Express-News article that detailed Schooman’s friendship with Rogers and his roommate, Kelley Hubler, among others. An email to the reporter led to a phone call to Rogers.

On April 13, Trevino had a 30-minute phone call with her father. They spoke of meeting up as soon as possible. But she couldn’t wait.

She and her husband drove down that night to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Kerrville. Rogers works as a part-time minister there and at Christ Episcopal Church in San Antonio.

He helped Schooman put on deodorant and clean his mouth. He took him to Walmart and bought him new jeans and a shirt. Schooman had enough on him to buy his daughter some teddy bears. They reviewed talking points. And then Trevino and her husband arrived at 10:30 p.m. and Schooman met his daughter and his son-in-law.

For the next two hours, he listened to her life story - high school graduation, wedding, childbirth and job at a mortgage company. She had been born premature and endured defects because of her mother’s substance abuse. Surgeries as a child had led to healthy adulthood, she noted.

Schooman shook his head in embarrassment at past decisions and at his current circumstances, including his difficulty speaking. She assured him of her forgiveness, that adoption had been the best option. She told him their encounter was a long-awaited thrill.

He wrote her a letter summarizing his life and gave it to her.

“I never thought I would have a daughter as beautiful as you,” it read.

Schooman also gave her the hospital bracelet he had saved all those years. And a coin that said “daughter” that he’d kept in his jeans pocket.

His eyes brightened - despite his pain medication - upon recalling her birth.

“I remember her reaching out and touching my mustache,” Schooman said later. “Things like that. Holding her - it touched my heart.”

On Easter Sunday, he sat on her back patio in Arlington, watching his two granddaughters, ages 5 and nearly 1, hunt for eggs. And he shared in eating cake, served to him in a cup with milk so he could swallow it.

“It was just remarkable that he’s finding me and getting to know that he has two grandkids and all these memories to make before he passes,” Trevino said.

Trevino has seen her mother twice - at ages 6 and 15 - but sustaining a relationship has proven difficult. Her mother remains homeless in Dallas and, Trevino said, seemed indifferent when told she had reunited with her father in San Antonio.

Last month, Trevino and her family visited Schooman in San Antonio. Rogers joined them for a meal at the Pig Stand on Broadway, the place where Schooman got his nickname, “Chili Willie.”

They strolled the River Walk. Schooman showed them his old stomping grounds, North St. Mary’s Street in Tobin Hill.

On the morning she was to leave, he waited for her at a cafeteria table, sipping coffee, eyes closed periodically from fatigue.

She walked in, their eyes connected and they hugged. His brother, Butch, also sat at the table. Years had gone by without them speaking. Now his brother picks him up for lunch three or four times a week.

Rogers has asked Schooman about funeral ideas. It will be at the Hot Spot Bar-B-Que Patio on St. Mary’s Street. A favorite song will play: “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” Schooman wants his ashes spread along this street and Rogers’ family ranch where the two have fished.

They thought at first the program would be a celebration of an otherwise forgotten life and an improbable friendship with a compassionate minister. Now, the funeral will be proper. His daughter and granddaughters will be there. He has a heritage to pass on.

“There’s salvation in his reunion with a family he never knew he was going to meet,” Rogers said. “It doesn’t end with me. Now, he has a legacy. He has a daughter. It’s eternal. We found something bigger than even death. And that’s God saying this is what’s possible.”

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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