The Way We Were: Bill and Mary Dudley Schmidt

The Way We Were: Bill and Mary Dudley Schmidt
Mary Dudley Childress and Bill Schmidt on their blind date on March 2, 1992

It doesn’t happen often. But sometimes, Cupid’s arrow pierces the same heart twice. Such was the fate of Bill Schmidt.

He was only 15 years old when he met his first love, his first wife, the mother of his two children. But cancer came. On the day he turned 48, the widower’s heart beat with love again when he met the lady who would become his second wife. Their nearly three-decade relationship is proof that true love can happen twice in a single lifetime.

Schmidt is a fourth generation Floridian. His maternal great-great-grandfather, William B. Henderson, born in Georgia, is considered one of the founders of Tampa and the namesake of Henderson Boulevard, Henderson Avenue, and W. B. Henderson Elementary School there. His mother, Christine Henderson, was one of five girls, all third generation Floridians.

Christine and Gert Schmidt
Christine and Gert Schmidt

Schmidt’s father, Gert, was a German immigrant who grew up in Vermont, went to Cornell University in New York to learn the hospitality industry, and was hired by George Mason to manage his Tampa Terrace Hotel. Schmidt’s parents met at that hotel while his dad was working, and his mom was there decorating a room for her Plant High School prom. Schmidt’s dad, as hotel manager, had told his secretary that he was so taken by the high school senior, “Someday, I’m gonna marry that girl.” A few years later, he did, before joining the Army Air Corps as a flight instructor. The couple moved to Ocala, where Bill Schmidt was born in 1944.

After the war, in 1946, the family moved to Jacksonville when Schmidt was 2 years old.  His father had been hired by Robert Kloeppel to manage the Hotel George Washington downtown. Schmidt recalls living in a penthouse there and his swing set being perched atop the hotel roof. The bellman often took Schmidt for walks around the city for exercise. By the age of 5, after a brief move to Fairfax Manor in the Avondale area, the family settled in the neighborhood of Venetia near Ortega where Schmidt grew up as big brother to Kent, Jack, and Bobby.

Venetia was built according to the developer’s dream—for it to be like Venice, Italy, with every other street to be little canals. But then the Great Depression came, and building stopped. So, when the family moved to the area, it was rather primitive and very woody. Schmidt’s dad volunteered with the Wesconnett Fire Department. There was no garbage pick-up service and only two or three homes on each block. Theirs was at the corner of Roma Boulevard and Genoa Avenue.

Next door to their home was an empty lot where Schmidt and his brothers enjoyed playing kick the can, baseball, and other sports. Living close to the St. Johns River, the four often fished and water skied.

Schmidt attended Venetia Elementary School, Lakeshore Junior High, and Robert E. Lee High School where he was a member of the football team. He keeps up with many of his childhood friends all these decades later.

In January of his high school senior year, 1962, Schmidt’s family moved to Florence Drive in Ortega, just prior to his graduating and leaving home for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study business administration. During his senior year of college, he was president of his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, to which he had pledged along with two buddies from Lee: Hap Stewart and Mike Hoyt, who was Schmidt’s freshman roommate. Schmidt had three more friends from Lee at UNC—Graham Allen, Bobby Martin, and Ray Rodgers—but they had pledged to a different fraternity. Upon returning home to Jacksonville after college graduation in 1966, Schmidt began working in the family business, Florida Tractor Corporation, a wholesale distribution company.

“I’d always loved advertising and public relations,” Schmidt said. So, in 1982, he partnered with three friends—Fred Miller, Bill Robinson, and Larry Nussmeyer—to form Miller/Robinson/ Nussmeyer/Schmidt, an advertising and public relations company. Once that company broke up, Schmidt went on to form William G. Schmidt Advertising and Public Relations, Inc.

During his senior year of college, Schmidt married his high school sweetheart, Sandra Johnston. They’d been dating since they turned 15 but were apart for a time while he was at UNC and she at USC. They raised two boys on Algonquin Avenue in Ortega, Bill Junior and John, who were born 13 months apart. The boys attended St. Mark’s Episcopal Day School, where their dad taught confirmation classes, and then Bolles starting in seventh grade. Growing up, when they weren’t playing sports, they loved duck hunting and dove hunting with their dad. In 1991, Bill Junior was in North Carolina at Wake Forest School of Medicine. John had just graduated from UNC, his father’s alma mater, and was working for the Republican National Committee in Washington. It was on October 13 of that year, after 27 years of marriage, that cancer took Sandra’s life. It took Bill’s heart with it. Or so he thought.

On March 2, 1992, his 48th birthday, Schmidt met Mary Dudley Childress on a blind date at a Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile, Alabama. He had been invited there by his friends, Geoff and Nancy (nee McLean) Parker. Schmidt and Parker had met during their freshman year at UNC when they were both members of the German Club. Childress had been invited to the annual event, which extends the debutante season for exclusive social circles, as godmother to one of the debutantes. When Schmidt and Childress met, “I was no spring chicken. I was 49,” Mary Dudley admitted. “I fell for her the moment I saw her. It was love at first sight,” Bill said.

Schmidt Wedding - Chapel of St. Mark’s  Episcopal Church - February 24, 1995
Schmidt Wedding – Chapel of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church – February 24, 1995

They wed on February 24, 1995. “I was terrified, so it took him three years to convince me to get married,” Mary Dudley said. She was a Mississippi gal, an only child whose parents died young. She felt, and still does, so fortunate because Gert and Christine, Bill’s parents, welcomed her readily into their family. “Bill and Sandra raised two fine young men, and now there are six grandchildren,” Mary Dudley pointed out. She relished having an instant family. “I married Bill because he’s a good husband, a good father, and a good Christian,” she said.

Mary Dudley comes from a tiny town, a farming community in Mississippi with a population of 735 people. She did live for a brief time in Alabama. And although she has seen the world as a 56-year, recently retired Delta airline flight attendant, “Jacksonville’s the biggest place I’ve ever lived,” she said. She relocated here after the wedding. “I moved into Bill’s house and made it my own. People have been lovely to me, and I’m so appreciative,” she said.

Mary Dudley Schmidt at the Trevi Fountain in Rome  “Toss a coin and you’ll return.”
Mary Dudley Schmidt at the Trevi Fountain in Rome “Toss a coin and you’ll return.”

Because of her airline career, the couple has been able to travel together extensively. “Mary Dudley has opened my horizons worldwide,” Bill said. “I really wanted to share my career with him. I wanted to share the bounty,” she said in reply. They have been to 16 countries on a regular basis. They were working trips for her while in the air, but they did get to tour together once they landed. One of numerous highlights was Bill having the opportunity to attend a Rotary Club meeting in Hamburg, Germany, on a layover where he met three men who seemed to know more about Florida than he did. Another was the uniqueness of eating delicious sushi from a convenience store in Narita, Japan. “My life hasn’t been glamorous, but it’s been filled with a lot of adventure,” Mary Dudley said.   

Mary Dudley and Bill Schmidt at Victoria Falls, South Africa
Mary Dudley and Bill Schmidt at Victoria Falls, South Africa

Mary Dudley does not miss flying for work. She’s learning to navigate a whole new world being full-time on the ground. “I’m learning to cook a little bit,” she said but admitted that Bill still prepares most of their meals. “I’m just beginning to have local adventures,” she said, and notes she is happy about meeting new people in the area around their home.

While she was still employed by Delta, Mary Dudley started an additional part-time job at Underwood Jewelers in Avondale where she still works today, for over two decades now. “I’ve met so many wonderful people there from all walks of life. That was my introduction to Jacksonville. And I felt good about it,” she said. She also commented about the numerous ZIP Codes she has learned since moving here.

Mary Dudley Schmidt and her horse, Sam Brown
Mary Dudley Schmidt and her horse, Sam Brown

Between them, the couple has had eight dogs since they’ve been together. Bill refers to the two of them as “animal persons.” As a child, Mary Dudley enjoyed riding horses. Her dad was a horseman on their family’s farm in Mississippi. At 72, when Bill bought her a horse for Christmas, she started taking lessons again at Geddaway Farm, which is owned by Sherri Geddes who lives in Ortega. Now 77, Mary Dudley recently began adult ballet classes at Baggs Studio on Plymouth Street.

“She’s a young 77. She looks 55. When I first saw Mary Dudley, my heart went to 12 on the flutter meter, and it hasn’t stopped since then,” Bill said of his wife, and he mentioned a song entitled “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again,” a single recorded in 2016 by Danny Gokey. The lyrics  tell Bill’s story best, his story of love and loss and love again: “Tell your heart to beat again. Close your eyes and breathe it in. Let the shadows fall away. Step into the light of grace.”

Schmidt Family at John and Kathryn Schmidt’s farm in The Plains, Virginia on Thanksgiving 2018. Back Row: John, Turner, Ragnar, Hildur, Mattie, Mary Dudley, Bill, Bill Jr., Grayson, and Kathryn. Front Row: Magnus, Coal the golden retriever, and Thor.
Schmidt Family at John and Kathryn Schmidt’s farm in The Plains, Virginia on Thanksgiving 2018. Back Row: John, Turner, Ragnar, Hildur, Mattie, Mary Dudley, Bill, Bill Jr., Grayson, and Kathryn. Front Row: Magnus, Coal the golden retriever, and Thor.

Bill is retired from business now and has also stepped down from his volunteer work with the Episcopal Diocese of Florida. He’s very proud to have been awarded the Bishop’s Cross Award for his prior service by Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard in 2012.

Bill spends as much time as he can in the art studio he built in his home. His canvases reflect an Impressionist approach and style. He is an honorary board member of the Jacksonville Artists Guild (JAG), the organization he formed in 2009 in memory of his mother who was an accomplished and prolific artist, a painter of acrylics and oils. The Guild’s co-founder is watercolorist Carole King Mehrtens, another Jacksonville resident, who was a dear friend, fellow painter, and traveling companion of Bill’s mom. The organization today has over 140 members. JAG hosts a variety of events, exhibitions, and programs that benefit the public.

Bill suffers from spinal stenosis, and his doctor tells him, “Motion is lotion,” so he tries to stay as active as possible. He chairs reunions for his alma mater, UNC. He has chaired many of his Lee High School reunions over the past five decades and remains friends with his female co-chairs, many of whom are members of the Lee Lunch Bunch Girls Club and have dubbed Schmidt their honorary mascot, still calling him by his childhood nickname, Billy. He threw himself a 75th birthday luncheon a couple of years ago and invited some of the ladies—Joanne Griffin-Caraway (former Miss Lee High), Catherine Sears-Sexton, and Margaret DeHoff-Stanly, to name a few.

Bill and Mary Dudley are still living in the Algonquin Avenue house in Ortega where he raised his boys. He’s lived there for nearly 50 years. The couple has also acquired a condo on Jacksonville Beach where they enjoy watching the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

Together for nearly 29 years, February 24 will mark their 26th wedding anniversary. For some, love like that doesn’t even come once in a lifetime. For Bill Schmidt, it’s come twice.

Mary Dudley and Bill Schmidt
Mary Dudley and Bill Schmidt
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