Elliot Schewel: One of the Very Best of Us Is Gone

Elliot and me at “persiflage.”

They’re burying my old friend Elliot Schewel today and I’m not so much sad as I am grateful to have known one of the truly great men in Virginia’s history. Elliot had a meaningful life, 95 years of it that he used to the fullest.

He was a man who cared about others, who lived a wonderful love story with his beautiful Rosel (he proposed by putting an engagement ring into a glass of champagne that was served to her), who served his country at a time of overwhelming danger, and served his city–Lynchburg–in the Virginia General Assembly, earning the nickname “The Conscience of the Senate.”

Elliot was the son of a Russian immigrant who had a reverence for all people, regardless of their race, gender, heritage, religion or economic status. He fought for others’ rights, for education, against smoking and for nearly all of the just causes that put him far ahead of Virginia’s government at the time he served in it. He was an artist who painted beautifully and collected the works of others.

He spent 50 years working in his family’s business, Schewel Furniture Company.

From left: me, Elliot, Betsy Gehman, Bill Quillen.

He was my hero for dozens of reasons and you have to imagine my shock when one day in about 1990, I got a letter from him–a man I barely knew–telling me that I was a hero to him for several editorials I had written. I nearly fell over, but had enough juice left to call him and arrange for us to have lunch in Lynchburg.

From that grew a regular luncheon engagement (we called it “persiflage”) that included a bunch of my writer friends and his close associates, who enriched my life. Among them was Elliot’s good buddy Bill Quillen, retired president of Randolph Macon Woman’s College 1952-1978, a man so vibrant at 95 that I bought him a collection of swing dance music after he had his hip replaced. And he danced to it.

My most noteworthy contribution to the group was Betsy Gehman, a former big-band singer, significant writer, New York stage and Hollywood signer/actor and teller of great stories. They all lived to be well into their 90s and enriched my life incalculably. The group, as a whole, was alive with stories and our lunches often lasted for hours.

I hadn’t seen Elliot for years since those halcyon days–except for the few moments we spent at Rosel’s funeral in recent years–but he was always there. Every time the General Assembly did something unconscionable, I thought of Elliot and how he would have made it right in his calm, kind, wise way.

He was a great man, a great teacher, and one of my favorite human beings of all time. He was a liberal Jew from a conservative Southern City … who was beloved by all. If we were all more like Elliot Schewel, the world would be a wonderful, kind and good place.



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