A Memoir by Mat Scheck
June 15, 2002
This is the tragic stories of “Big Mike” Scheck and Jeff Ramsey and how a lovely middle class neighborhood was damaged forever by their untimely deaths.
I was born in Rock Island, Illinois and lived there for the first twelve years of my life. My family owned a house on 22nd Street on the corner of 12th Avenue, a massive Victorian manor capable of housing my large family, which was comprised of six girls, three boys, and my parents, plus an endless gaggle of family pets and visiting relatives and friends. It was a happy household, nestled in a peaceful and quaint middle class neighborhood, until two tragic events happened in the span of a year that forever destroyed the peace, happiness, and tranquility of two fine neighborhood families. One of those families was mine. The other family was that of my best friend, Jon Ramsey.
For many years I buried the horrible memories from 1972-73 deep inside my mind and only revisited them in nightmares. My family moved away from Rock Island when I was 12, so it was much easier to escape from the bad memories simply because everything from that era was far, far away from me; I didn’t have any daily reminders of my once ideal childhood that had been shattered by death and tragedy. As I grew older the memories slipped into oblivion and eventually disappeared for long stretches of time.
But I could never escape the nightmares.
The story begins when my father, Michael Leo “Big Mike” Scheck, a Chicago native and World War II veteran, moved to the Rock Island area—known as the “Quad Cities” because Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa were all located in what is essentially one metropolitan area—in 1947 to attend St Ambrose College in Davenport. He and his younger brother, Ed, were outstanding football players at St. Ambrose under legendary coach Larry “Moon” Mullins. Uncle Ed was so good he was inducted into the St. Ambrose Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984. While attending St. Ambrose my father met my mother, Therese Marie “Tess” Bernat, a French-American beauty and Indiana native whose French-born father, Jean, taught French and Spanish at the school around the time my father was an undergraduate there. My parents married in 1949 and eventually settled in Rock Island, where my father was a teacher and counselor for the Rock Island School Corporation for many years. My parents bought the house at 1048 22nd Street about three years before I, their last child, was born in 1963.
For the first nine years of my life our neighborhood in Rock Island was an ideal place for a family to live. The Hauberg family, wealthy scions of the local timber industry, donated their large estate to the city seven years before I was born, and their beautiful, wooded estate became the Hauberg Park and Civic Center. This lovely park and its surrounding woods was located across the street from our home. For years it was the best place for a kid to play, from sledding in the winter on its many hills, to building hidden tree forts or playing Army with friends in its woods, to playing at the park run by the excellent staff of the Rock Island Parks and Recreation Department, to playing T-shirt League baseball (a sort of pre-Little League organization) on its many ball fields.
In about 1971 my father started acting strangely. At first he had memory lapses and strange blackouts that grew progressively worse until he’d forget long stretches of time. When he’d come to from these memory “fits” he had no idea how he got to where he was. Then he started having bizarre personality changes where he exhibited behavior that was not only unusual, but also completely off character for him. Then he began having violent anxiety attacks that would wrack his entire body with trembles and sometimes even mild to severe seizures.
Dad had been born into abject poverty, grew up in the rough-and-tumble, South Side Chicago ghetto during the Great Depression, and had survived Word War II, so he was an amazingly tough and resilient guy, and thus he laughed off these odd personality changes as male menopause. But when they started to affect his work, his concerned peers and family begged him so seek medical help, which he eventually did. Some of his more malicious peers started whispering behind his back that he was crazy, which was absurd, as Mike Scheck had been known his entire life as the most sane, logical, rational, sober, stable, dependable, and decent man most people had ever met. These vicious rumors spread like wildfire and I was taunted more than once by kids for having a “psycho” dad.
When Dad finally sought medical help, to say the medical professionals he reached out to failed him would be an understatement. Gross malpractice would be far too kind a description of the horrible treatment and care he received the first year after his strange symptoms arose. First they said he had a thyroid problem. When that proved untrue, they said he was insane and had him placed in a psychiatric ward for evaluation. The shrinks who saw him declared him completely sane and back he went to the internists for even more bungling and incompetent treatment by them. They poked, prodded, and examined him relentlessly, and then, finding nothing that verified their initial diagnoses, declared his troubles were psychosomatic and all in his head.
Finally, Dad was sent to be evaluated at the Veterans hospital in Iowa City, Iowa, where the excellent neurosurgeons from the University of Iowa realized almost immediately that dad had the classic symptoms of a brain tumor called glioblastoma. A brain scan confirmed this: inside dad’s brain was a gigantic tumor the size of a grapefruit. It was only due to dad’s immense strength, resilience, and toughness that he had survived so long. The tumor was spreading rapidly and had already begun to invade his spinal column. The doctors informed my mother that dad had less than a year to live. They were absolutely in awe of him that he’d survived this long.
For the next nine months Dad’s doctors tried mightily to help ease his suffering from this horrible disease, and of course Big Mike fought it with every fiber of his immense being, but in the end his cancer defeated him, and he died at about 4:00 am on October 15, 1973. I was 10 years old.
My life has never been the same since that awful last year of my dad’s life. Most of it
remains a bad dream for me, even some 30 years later. The horror of watching my big, strong father slowly waste away and lose his mind was often too much to bear, and the worst part was knowing he was never going to get better, no matter how hard I prayed, and I prayed every day and night for nine months. I have never prayed for anything since.
I actually felt immense relief when he died, because I knew death had finally eased the massive pain from which Dad was suffering, not only from his illness, but also from knowing he was not going to be there any more for his beloved wife and their nine children, three grandchildren, and all their progeny who would be born after his death. For many years afterward I blocked all memories of my father, because every time I thought about him I’d fall into a deep depression that nearly paralyzed me for days.
But this story gets even worse. Much worse.
My two best friends for most of my life in Rock Island were Jon Ramsey and Larry “Buzzie” Phillips, both of whom lived up the hill from me on 22nd Street near 13th Avenue. Buzzie was a funny and neurotic dreamer who loved to build things and then tear them down for fun. Jon was a tiny but tough and brilliant kid, probably my one intellectual and athletic rival at Lincoln Elementary School. The three of us had been friends since we were babies. I cannot recall many days in my life that didn’t include either Jon or Buzz, or both, in my daily living and adventures.
Jon Ramsey was the first friend I told on October 15, 1973 that my father died. I have absolutely no recollection of why I decided to go to school that day, but I did, and as I lumbered out my front door for the long walk to school, Jon was the first kid I encountered. Jon, Buzzie, and I walked to school together nearly every day since we were in kindergarten, so it wasn’t unusual to run into Jon in the morning.
“My dad died last night,” I told him immediately. Jon—as will be seen later in this essay—was the one kid I knew would understand what I was feeling at that moment. We both cried all the way to school that morning.
During the dark days after my father died, Jon’s mom, Wilma Ramsey, was an incredible presence around my house. That’s what people did in my neighborhood. While my family shuffled through and attended to our seemingly endless post-death duties for my father, Wilma took care of our house, answered our phone, and cooked for us. It was an extremely magnanimous and generous gesture from a wonderful and caring woman.
The Ramsey family understood tragedy better than most. In 1972, Jon’s older brother, Jeff, was kidnapped and murdered.
Jeff was a rambunctious and wild kid who often tried his mother’s patience. For a 12-year-old, he lived life a little too far on the edge, always running off to places he shouldn’t have been, and in the summer of 1972 he paid the price for his Tom Sawyer-like adventures into the dark unknown.
For my friends and me, Jeff’s murder was a nightmare of horrific dimensions. One day he was there and the next he was not, and the circumstances of his death were so brutally macabre that it was almost impossible to believe. Nowadays kids get plenty of exposure to murder and horror from movies and video games, but in 1972 the idea of being kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and murdered like Jeff was the stuff of campfire tales, not of reality.
Yet it happened to my best friend’s older brother, a kid I’d known since I was a baby; a kid I played Army with in the woods (Jeff liked to re-enact Vietnam battles where he and my older brother, John, and John’s best friend, Ted Clegg, always played the Vietcong); a kid who taught me to cast a fishing rod when I was four; a kid who was probably the most daring sledder and bike rider in the neighborhood; a kid who used to torment, tease, and beat up his little brother and me because we weren’t “tough” enough for his taste; a kid who used to turn his basement into the coolest haunted houses every Halloween; a kid who had coolest bike in the neighborhood—a spiffy Stingray upon which he spent all his money he earned from delivering the Quad City Times newspaper every day since he was nine.
Jeff was brilliant, creative, funny, and, yes, very wild. These days I am sure kids like Jeff are chocked full of Ritalin and probably aren’t allowed to leave the house, which probably would have been a good idea for Jeff in 1972. For all his crazy antics, Jeff didn’t possess a molecule of malice in his entire being, and moreover I had six sisters who adored him, because above all else the Ramsey boys were beautiful and charming and girls went crazy over them. No one would have wished this horrible fate upon Jeff. Back then life was fairly innocent and these terrible things just didn’t happen. But it did happen, and Jeff suffered the consequences.
When Jeff turned up missing the first week of June, my mother and father immediately went to the aid of the Ramsey family much in the same manner that Jeff’s mother would do for us a year later when my father died. I wouldn’t say my parents and Jon and Jeff’s parents—Wilma and Dale Ramsey—were close friends, but there was a mutual respect and admiration on both sides that had always been evident. Now in their most desperate time of need, Dale and Wilma needed all the friends they had to rally to their aid.
When I think of Wilma Ramsey I always remember going to Jon’s house after school and she’d make us sandwiches while he and I watched The Monkees on television—Jon and I were huge fans and owned all their records. She was a quiet, gentle, and kind woman, but Jeff drove her crazy because he was such a wild and adventurous rascal. Jon, on the other hand, was a great son, very smart and responsible for a nine-year-old boy, the obvious leader of my peer group, and in most ways the exact opposite of his manic brother. No parent deserved what happened to Jeff, and certainly not Wilma, who was great mother, and certainly no kid needs to see this horrible thing happen to his brother as Jon did. I doubt Jon and Wilma were ever the same.
When Jeff first disappeared no one was too shocked, because Jeff had a reputation for running off and not coming home until late, for which he was punished and grounded endlessly all the years I’d known him. But after a full night passed and he didn’t show up, everyone became worried. An endless line of police and FBI agents started interviewing all the kids and adults in the neighborhood. No one knew Jeff’s whereabouts, although everyone swore to have seen him on the day he disappeared, which wasn’t unusual because Jeff was a social being who hung out with everyone at one time or another. After a week it became apparent that Jeff was probably not coming back alive. By that time the front pages of both Quad Cities newspapers, and all the local news station broadcasts, were filled with little more than the plight of this missing kid from our neighborhood, this kid who had been our very dear friend and neighbor all our lives.
They found Jeff on Arsenal Island near the Sylvan Slough, buried beneath a pile of refuse. He had been brutally mutilated, tortured, and hanged by his captor. The Sylvan Slough was a popular fishing spot for kids in my neighborhood, a place where legendary-sized channel catfish could be caught if you knew where to look. A place we’d all frequented at one time or another for years. However, Jeff went alone that day he turned up missing, which for the rest of us was unthinkable. In his case it was a tragically unlucky thing for him to do.
The police and FBI never caught Jeff’s killer. For years my friends and I tried, in the spirit of Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys, to solve Jeff’s murder. One of my friends, Jimmy Hannan, knew more about Jeff’s case than other kids because his father was the Chief of Police for the Rock Island Arsenal US Army base. In fact, Chief Hannan was one of the police officers who found Jeff’s body, and his department was prominent in the subsequent murder investigation.
Rock Island was a river town located on the banks of the Mississippi and had plenty of strange and crazy transients, losers, bums, and sickos capable of such a horrible crime. In the summer of 1973 Jimmy, my other friend Ralph Haymon, and I tried to find Jeff’s killer. It became our obsession. Jon Ramsey was our best friend, and finding his big brother’s killer became our Holy Grail quest. Sadly, we had few clues to go on other than what Jimmy glommed from his Dad, and we—like the Rock Island Police Department, The Rock Island Arsenal Police, and the FBI—never solved the crime.
My family moved away from Rock Island on May 15, 1975, and I have only been back five times since then. Eventually as I moved on with my life the bad memories faded. As the years went by I lost touch with all my friends from 22nd Street and Lincoln Elementary School. However, the nightmares would often return with an alarming frequency, forever reminding me of the pain and anguish that robbed me of my childhood.
The years 1972 and 1973 were a nightmare if you lived on 22nd Street in Rock Island, Illinois. First little Jeff Ramsey was murdered in the most horrible of ways, and then a year later Big Mike Scheck was felled by cancer at 48, leaving behind a wife and nine children and a town full of kids who missed his presence at school.
The last time I visited Rock Island was in 1999, when I brought my then girlfriend there to attend a family reunion in Bettendorf, where I still had relatives from both the Scheck and Bernat clans. I took her to see Hauberg Park and the old Scheck House at 1048 22nd Street, then showed her where all my friends and I, including Jeff Ramsey, had carved our names on the giant H-Block Monolith that marked the entrance to Hauberg Park. I showed her all the cool hills where my friends and I went sledding. I showed her the ice-skating rink and ball fields where my friends and I used to play. I showed her my father’s grave at the Rock Island Arsenal’s Veteran’s Cemetery. I told her the tragic tales of Jeff Ramsey and my father. And then I finally closed that chapter in my life once and for all.
Until today; I guess I’ll never fully escape my nightmare on 22nd Street.