The Bible says, “Ask and you shall receive.” Irene Schuchard takes that admonishment at face value. She asks and she receives. Recently, Irene received her renewal notice from Montana PBS. She promptly paid her bill, but Irene also added a note directed to William Marcus who produces “Backroads of Montana.” Schuchard told him, “There are lots of small towns in Montana and their senior centers are important to them. People need to know more about what they do. How about coming over to Harlowton and taking a look at ours?”
It wasn’t long after that John Twigg and Alison Perkins of Montana PBS made a visit and began producing a segment on the Wheatland County Senior Citizens Center for “Backroads of Montana.” The show aired in May and featured interviews with a number of area seniors as well as remembrances of Irene’s husband Ralph who helped out a great deal at the center.
Irene Schuchard began volunteering at the Senior Center back in March of 1993. By April, she had been hired as director to replace Lauree Peck. Over those past 13 years, there have been considerable changes at the center. Senior transportation has flourished, several grant proposals have been written and awarded, a new exhaust fan above the stove was installed, new tables and chairs and freezers purchased, a new office built.
In the past, Irene had to take clients to sit on the steps of the old Baptist Church across the street for private interviews. In the late 90s, she asked for donations and received enough to have a modest office built in a corner of the building.
The Wheatland County Senior Center dates from 1971. It is now designated as a “licensed” nutrition center. Adonna Toshoff is the head cook and Elaine Jones her assistant.
In recent years, membership at the center has dropped off decidedly from around 100. Many seniors have died or moved away. Others have moved in with family or gone off to nursing homes. And, a lot of older people resist coming into the center and calling themselves “senior citizens.” Regardless, the Senior Center is open to people of any age.
When Irene started her job back in 1993, there was some concern about how things might go. But, she told people that she was coming in with a new broom. Some members were uncomfortable with Hutterites using the Center’s services. However, Irene made it quite clear, “I’m the new director and I’ve got a brand new broom. I will make a clean sweep, if necessary. This Center is for all seniors.” For 3 1/2 years, Mrs. Schuchard made the rounds at the Hutterite colonies, helping with blood pressure checks and vital signs and encouraged them to learn to help themselves.
Irene obviously has some of the talents of a nurse which eventually led her to work at Wheatland Memorial Hospital. She gives credit to her mother and aunt for nurturing those abilities. But also, “Growing up on the farm or ranch, I naturally had to give Dad a hand with the animals. I also cared for my siblings. It helps if your heart is open.”
Prior to joining the Senior Center, Irene had gone through a painful divorce and moved for a time to Miles City to take a Career Development course at the Community College. She stayed on to go to CNA school there.
Returning to Harlowton as a CNA, Schuchard worked at the Wheatland Memorial Nursing Home for over two years with some overlap at the Senior Center. Recalling her time at the Nursing Home, she said, “I liked to help people. The thing is - it takes a lot of energy to work in a place like that. I had to back away.”
Irene Schuchard started out in Iowa. Her family moved to a ranch near Gettysburg, South Dakota, when she was in the third grade. From third to eighth grade, Irene attended a one-room schoolhouse. On Labor Day 1956, the Holbrooks moved to Nohly, Montana. She graduated from high school in Fairview in 1960.
Irene’s father leased a farm on the North Dakota side of the border and ran a truck garden. “We raised potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and sold them to stores and cafes. I really enjoyed that life. You can take the kid off the farm, but can’t the farm out of the kid. I still like to work on my flower garden, when I have time.”
Shortly after high school, Irene married Ernest Filler. The couple first started in ranching, but moved back to “the home place” from 1962 to 1966 raising spring spelts, beans, sugar beets, barley and wheat.
The adventure of a lifetime began when the Fillers with children Gypsy, Shane and Casey left Sidney, Montana for western Australia in December 1966. “We thought we knew where we were going, but we didn’t.”
They didn’t, in part, because Qantas Airways went on strike in the midst of their travels. The family managed to get re-ticketed via Philippine Airlines flying from San Francisco to Honolulu to Wake and Manila. Then, they were quarantined for a time in the Philippines for lack of proper vaccinations.
Practically all of their money - in the form of travelers checks - was stolen in Manila. But, they were undaunted and managed to get to Singapore where they were aided by Baptist missionaries. Eventually, Irene and Ernest and the kids had to camp out in front of Philippine Airlines to get a ride on a rickety old airplane which landed in Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia, eighteen days after they started their journey.
The Fillers got work at the Triangle T Cattle Station. “We had two seasons there. It was either wet weather or dry, dry. Everything was either very green or brown, brown.”
The family lived in a 30 by 80 foot metal hut (built by Yankee soldiers during WWII) and had to battle with tree frogs and ants and skeeters. Nature was pretty “wild” in those parts. Wild hogs, cattle, and brumbies (horses) were plentiful. The Fillers harvested oranges, limes, lemons, mangoes and pineapples from the property. Irene was able to grow sweet potatoes. Watermelon grew wild as did pigs and kangaroos. Dogs helped in the task of bringing down pigs and roos.
During the wet season, Ernest worked at Rum Jungle Mine - iron, manganese, and cobalt. After a year in the Outback, the family moved south. At one point on the trip, they passed through Winton and Charlieville where it hadn’t rained in 11 years. “Not even dew.” The following day, the rains came and dropped 9 inches on the barren spot.
The Fillers settled at Ghinni Ghinni Island, New South Wales, where Ernest and Irene took jobs at a dairy. They milked 80 cows twice a day. “I had to milk by hand on occasion. We had a regular rodeo then. But, I learned to talk to those cows that wouldn’t let down their milk. I even played music for them. You can do more with honey than with a club, most times.”
Ghinni Ghinni was apparently a little on the remote side. A dairy boat came out to the island once a day at high tide to pick up the 700+ gallons of milk the Fillers coaxed from their herd. Ghinni Ghinni Creek was notorious for hungry sharks and scary eels.
After another year, the Fillers packed the kids and their gear and headed back north to the big city of Darwin. Ernest was Stores Division Manager at the Darwin Hospital and also worked again at the Rum Jungle Mine.
Irene remembers her days in Australia with great fondness. One of the best parts of the adventure in Australia was studying and learning with Michael Morcum, a one-time missionary to India. “He took us under his wing for two full years, teaching us out of the Bible. Wherever Michael was, it was church. I was plum happy there.”
Nonetheless, Ernest decided he wanted to go back to the states after three years Down Under. But, the Fillers needed a substantial amount of money and time got short - a weekend - for them to start there way back to the USA. “I put a fleece out to the Lord and he didn’t let me down.”
The Fillers had carried five American-made saddles with them in all their Australian travels and had never found a buyer for them. But at the last moment, a rich rancher named Ray Townsend, appeared at their doorstep and said, “Do you still have those Yankee saddles?”
Well, of course, they did. Townsend’s son, Bubba, wanted to establish a rodeo in Australia and those saddles would be helpful. A deal was made with the Fillers getting more than expected for the leather. Bubba got to start his rodeo and Ernest, Irene, and the five youngsters (Eric and Travis were born in Australia) got tickets back to America.
Life was never quite the same after Australia. The Fillers returned to Fairview. “We had to go back to bananas from the store.” They later moved to Ennis where Amelia and Mack were born. From 73 to 75, the Fillers lived on the Livingston Place south of Harlowton and worked for Buck Jones. Flossie was born during that time.
From 75 to 81, they ranched on Sarpy Creek near Hardin. Then, this vagabond bunch moved to Spring Creek and worked at the Absaloka Mine. Irene held a number of jobs during that time - working at the mine, ranching sheep and cattle near Forsyth from 83 to 90, raising her family, and nursing Ernest back to health after a riding injury.
Irene and Ernest parted ways in 1990. After CNA school in Miles City, Irene returned to Harlowton. “We lived here in the 70s and I really liked it.” Irene moved back in 91, took her job at the nursing home, and married Ralph Schuchard.
“Ralph saw what he wanted and asked me to marry him. He had a great outlook on life. I felt appreciated. Those were the best years of my entire life.” During those years, Ralph worked on the Winnecook for a time and for Warren Jones, Bud Lode, and on the Moore Ranch at others. He died in 2002.
Irene Schuchard’s involvement with seniors has helped her get through hard times and her dedication to the Senior Center has helped a lot of seniors get through their own. Irene is a great advocate for Wheatland County’s seniors and has built and expanded many programs which make a difference. These include meals at the Center Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Home Delivered Meals on the same days, Homemakers, Senior Transportation (with two vans), Health Screenings with hearing evaluations on every third Thursday, Socialization with crafts on Mondays at noon and pinochle on Fridays at 7. Speakers also come to the Center from time to time to address senior topics. Tax preparers make appearances every winter before April 15.
The Senior Center is supported by governmental sources channeled through two main organizations named Case Management and the Area 2 Agency for Aging. The county generally matches about 15 percent of Center costs. But when that money was unavailable in the past, Irene and her group turned to bake sales and rummage sales and preparing lunches for visitors to the Bair Museum to make up the difference.
Irene Schuchard believes that if you ask, you shall receive. She also knows how to work and care for people and make a difference in her community.