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Obituary of Alexander Harvey Scheuer: Firefighter, painter, child advocate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 19, 2009 - When the family and friends of firefighter Alexander "Alex" Harvey Scheuer gathered at Andre's South Thursday evening, it didn't seem much like a funeral. It was more like a party, because that's exactly what Mr. Scheuer wanted.

"Dad wanted us to get together and celebrate his life and not mourn," said Mr. Scheuer's eldest son, Justin Scheuer. Mr. Scheuer died last Saturday (Feb. 14) in the house in Eureka that he and his wife, Diana, shared for the past 30 years. He died of renal cell cancer, a form of kidney cancer that he'd been diagnosed with eight years ago. He was 56.

During the course of the evening, more than 500 came to share a lifetime of tears and laughter. On-duty firefighters in full uniform stopped by. So did people from the old neighborhood, St. Ambrose Parish on "The Hill," where Mr. Scheuer had grown up. The priest who had performed the Scheuers' wedding ceremony more than three decades ago was there. It was like a homecoming.

Justin and his brother, Nathan, read original poetry. Nathan read a poem he'd written when he was 12 years old and had just learned of his father's cancer diagnosis. The decor included the playable violin that Mr. Scheuer hand-carved, along with other of his woodworking projects. His eclectic library of reading material - books by Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Stephen King, President Jimmy Carter, Walt Whitman, naturalist John Muir - was on display. There was a "This is Your Life" slide show created by Nathan of more than 200 pictures, including Halloween photos of the Scheuers in role reversal. And the family played the music of such diverse artists as Yo Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. 

Mr. Scheuer was born in St. Louis and graduated from Christian Brothers College High School in 1970. He then attended St. Louis Community College at Meramec, where he met his future wife, Diana Palecek, to whom he was married for 33 years.

For 19 years, Mr. Scheuer worked for the Webster Groves Fire Protection District; he spent another 16 years at the Mehlville District, most recently with Engine Company 1770, out of Fire Station No. 7, where he was a firefighter, paramedic and engineer/lead man, filling in as an engine driver when needed. He was a member of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), Local 1889. He retired from firefighting last year.

"Alex was gentle, quiet and humble, but when it came to doing the job, he always had your back; in a fire situation or a medical emergency, he was right in there," said Dennis Maag, a friend and colleague in Mehlville for the past 16 years. "You could not have met a nicer person. He'd quietly do his job and he never, never, ever, looked for anything in return. He was happy just to be a firefighter."

Mr. Scheuer became a firefighter when he was just 22 years old. About the same time, he also became a house painter. He was the sole owner and operator of Scheuer Painting for 25 years.

"He never advertised, it was all word of mouth, but he had lots of clients," Justin said. "Everybody knew Dad's white van. After a 24-hour shift (at the firehouse), he would go and do his painting and wallpapering."

Mr. Scheuer used his painting as a creative outlet, experimenting with textures until he created a way to make a wall look as though it was made of marble.

"My father was one of these amazing guys who could teach himself anything," Justin Scheuer said. "When he decided he was going to do something, he'd figure out how to do it."

Mr. Scheuer didn't play an instrument, but he decided one day that he would make a violin, with only the help of a how-to book. It took him six painstaking months, but he made a violin, complete with delicately etched scrollwork -- that worked.

"He didn't create it to play," Justin said. "He just wanted to do it. But it was playable. It became his pride and joy."

He was also proud of his work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the children it served. He was the founder of the MDA drive at the Webster Groves Fire Protection District and later worked on behalf of MDA at Mehlville. He organized the Silver Boot fund drive for MDA that's held just before Labor Day each year.

"He really loved children and he just loved going out and being with them," Justin said. "It was something he was very passionate about."

Mr. Scheuer was passionate about a lot of things, but his passion was tempered by a natural propensity toward humility. His wife, Diana, encouraged him to explore and express his interests.

"Mom always made him see how talented he was," Justin said. "He was very, very modest, but she would encourage him to be everything he could be. He was not a traditional intellectual, but he had a very profound view of life. She supported his natural curiosity and helped him realize the power of his intellect."

He also came to realize the power of his spirituality.

During the past six years, he began to meditate, seeking to find a stillness within and a more personal relationship with God. It may be the reason he lived seven and a half years longer than his doctors had predicted. But Mr. Scheuer did what he always did: He taught himself.

"He did research and learned about alternative things you could do," Justin said. "He bought a heavy-duty juicer and drank a lot of carrot juice; he cut meat and dairy out of his diet. He designed a regiment that helped to fight the cancer. He inspired a lot of people after he was diagnosed."

Most of all, he inspired his children. Justin said that if he or Nathan said "I love you dad," he'd say, "I love you more!"

During the celebration of Mr. Scheuer's life, his family heard many words of love, including those from the "brotherhood" of firefighters.

"It has been an honor to help," Maag said. "We take care of each other."

Mr. Scheuer was preceded in death by his parents, Harvey and Angelina Scheuer.

In addition to his wife, Diana Scheuer (nee Palecek), of Eureka, and his son Justin Scheuer and daughter-in-law Virginia Scheuer of Fayetteville, Ark., he is survived by his son, Nathan Scheuer of St. Louis; his sisters, Debby Reitmeyer of St. Louis and Vickie Thompson of Kirkwood, and his father- and mother-in-law, Art and Theresa Palecek of St. Louis.

Mr. Scheuer donated his body to Washington University School of Medicine.

In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate charitable donations to The Backstoppers, 10411 Clayton Rd., St Louis, Mo. 63131, www.backstoppers.org ; PBS, NPR (National Public Radio), MSD or a charity of the donor's choice.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

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