Bill Schonely: Turning 86 and feeling ‘great’

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PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Bill Schonely nestles into the booth at Hayden’s Grill for lunch — chopped Caesar salad, clam chowder, glass of Chardonnay — and a little bit of celebration.

On Monday, the legendary former voice of the Trail Blazers turned 86.

If it’s a daunting number, Schonely is taking it in stride.

“You know what 86 means?” he asks impishly. “When you get 86ed, you’re history. You’re outta here.”

Is that the case with you, Schonz? Are you outta here?

“I don’t know,” he says, laughing. “I just now thought about that.”

So how does it feel to be 86?

“It feels great,” Schonely says. “People don’t want to tell their age as they get older, but there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. You get older every day. You are what you are.

“I’m still working full-time. I love my job. I’ll keep on doing it until they don’t want me.”

This story comes from our news partner, The Portland Tribune

Fortunately, Schonely remains very much wanted by the franchise with which he has been a fortress since the inaugural 1970-71 season. Since 2003, when Steve Patterson took over from Bob Whitsitt as the club’s president, Schonely has served as goodwill ambassador for the Blazers. His contract expires on June 30.

“We’re in the process of writing up a new deal,” Schonely says. “The only thing I know is, I have at least one more year.”

Schonely provides a variety of duties for the Blazers. Those legendary pipes — “the Voice of God,” as he has been known in Blazer Broadcasting circles for years upon end — handle voiceovers for commercials and lead-ins and virtually everything but play-by-play itself.

He mingles with clients and sponsors, representing the club at luncheons and banquets and appearances throughout the state. He signs autographs and poses for photos and presses flesh. It’s a labor of love, and nobody does it better.

During Blazer game nights, Schonely presides over “Schonely’s Place,” operated by Pyramid Brewing Company at Moda Center. He visits constituents before the game and at halftime, some of them quaffing “The Schonz,” an American Amber/Red Ale-style beer Pyramid introduced last year.

“I really enjoy that, and the people like it,” he says. “The food is good, and the fans are packed in there on game nights. I have to fight my way in there. I walk in and say hello to the folks, as many as I can. That’s been nice.”

Schonely looks good — not that much different than he did in 1998, his final year of a 28-year career behind the mike for the Blazers.

“The guy is ageless,” says Geoff Petrie, the former Blazer general manager who was co-rookie of the year the very first season.

Part of the reason for Schonely’s virility is he is never idle for long.

“I’m always on the move,” he says. “Oh, I’ve slowed down. I can’t do things I could do even 10 years ago. Not major things, fortunately. I’ve been very lucky.”

Schonely’s civic and community service record is extraordinary. For years, he has served as master of ceremonies for a number of charitable activities and golf fundraisers and athletic banquets, including the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, of which he is a member.

“The phone rings and people want me to do this and that, and I have a hard time saying no,” he says. “All of a sudden, my calendar gets full, and (wife) Dottie says, ‘When are you going to stop all of this?’

“It gets a little hairy at times, but I enjoy it. I want to help. People have been so good to me over the years.”

For 20 years, Schonely’s pet project has been the Providence Child Center for medically fragile kids in Northeast Portland. Schonely oversees a project labeled “Bill’s Kids.”

“We’ve raised a lot of money over the years,” he says. “I feel very good about that. We have a couple of golf tournaments coming up this summer.

“The Portland-area Subaru dealers had a contest and are giving more than $73,000 to Bill’s Kids. That’s mind-boggling.”

Behind broadcasting, music is Schonely’s second love. He and Dottie have been members of the choir at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church for about 10 years. Before that, Dottie played the organ at Lake Oswego Methodist Church for many years. Every season, Schonely is called upon to sing the national anthem, or “God Bless America,” or “America the Beautiful” before a Blazer game or two.

On June 26 and 27, Schonely will serve as emcee for “America My Home,” a concert in tribute to the military at Vancouver’s Skyview High. A 100-voice choir and 60-piece orchestra will perform. During the show, Schonely will narrate Aaron Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” a classical orchestra work with excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s great documents, including the Gettysburg Address.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Schonely, a veteran of the Marine Corps.

Schonely is the last man standing from the original group of employees under founder Harry Glickman from the expansion franchise’s first year, a skeleton crew that included Stu Inman, George Rickles, Berlyn Hodges and coach Rolland Todd.

Except for three years in the mid-1990s, when Schonely moved over to TV and Eddie Doucette handled radio responsibilities, the Schonz was the club’s radio voice until 1998. When Whitsitt and vice president/marketing Harry Hutt removed him of his duties after the 1997-98 season, it sparked an uprising from Blazer fans that shook the franchise at its foundation.

Amid protests and boycotts, Schonely left the Blazers for a while, serving as radio play-by-play man for baseball’s Portland Beavers for three seasons. When Patterson replaced Whitsitt in 2003, Schonely was returned to full-time duty as an ambassador for the club.

It’s been a glorious ride as the franchise’s last working original, highlighted by the team’s only NBA championship in 1977 and his visit to Springfield, Mass., in 2011 to receive the annual Curt Gowdy Award during the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies.

Schonely wears the ’77 championship ring on his right ring finger.

“I tell people I want to stick around ’til we get another, but my God — we better hurry up!” Schonely says with a laugh.

Schonely’s health has held up since heart attack in 1980 and open-heart surgery in 1981. He wears a defibrillator but has had few episodes over the years.

“The ticker’s doing fine,” he says. “I know I’m going to slow down a little bit more one of these days. If I get tired, I just stop. But I enjoy getting out there in front of the folks and doing what I do.”

Besides his work with the Blazers, Schonely remains visible to the public through several endorsements, serving for 22 years as spokesman for Standard TV & Appliance and doing advertising spots for Willoughby Hearing Aid Center and the Springs Living retirement homes.

Bill has been married to Dottie — his second wife — for 23 years. High school sweethearts in Norristown, Pa., they reconnected years later after Bill’s divorce and the death of Dottie’s husband.

“It’s been sensational,” Schonely said. “Just to think, we went together as kids, and our lives went separate ways for all those years. Then we found each other again. We started together; we’ll end it together.”

Bill and Dottie live at Charbonneau. Their home is on the seventh fairway of the yellow course.

“I’ll never have to buy another golf ball in my life,” he says. “When (golfers) hit off the seventh tee, if it’s an errant shot — and there are quite a few — I get ’em and put them in my bag, so I can go out and lose them myself.”

Schonely drives a 2012 Cadillac CTS with his trademark “Rip City” license plates.

“The only ‘Rip City’ license plates in the state,” he says.

On his car’s Sirius radio, Schonely keeps tabs on his favorite pro sports teams.

“I’m a Yankee fan, even though I’m from Philadelphia,” he says. “When I was a kid, it was the Philadelphia A’s. My dad took me to those games, and to watch the Phillies at Shibe Park.

“In the NFL, it was the Washington Redskins. They had great teams in my childhood, and I liked their fight song.”

Schonely is a patriot, the result of his five years in the Marines, most of them served in the South Pacific right after World War II.

“One of the best things that ever happened to me,” Schonely says of his military service. “I thought I was going to be a singer and do choral work, which I really wanted to do. When I went into the Marine Corps, it did a lot for me. I grew up in a hurry.

“I was just about to make staff sergeant. They wanted me to stay in, and I almost did, but I landed a job at a radio and TV station in Baton Rouge in 1953. Got on a greyhound bus from Quantico, Va., and went all the way to Baton Rouge. Three years later, I moved to Seattle. I’ve been in the Northwest ever since.”

Schonely had four children by his first marriage. The oldest, Steve, died from cancer two years ago. Rick lives in Hawaii, Linda in Milwaukie, Billy in Hillsboro. Schonely has four grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Coaches and players have come and gone through the years, but Schonely has been the constant of the Trail Blazers. He is the face of the franchise. It can be argued that he has never been more popular in the community, though a generation of fans never heard him call a game.

To Schonely, retirement is a dirty word.

“I can’t play golf seven days a week,” he says. “I don’t have a hobby. My job, music and Dottie — those things are my life. Until I can’t do my job, I’m going to do it.”

For that, we are all grateful.

—–kerryeggers@portlandtribune.com

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