Throughout the years, Ron Schilling has been known as a lot of things to Columbus.
He’s a longtime city councilman, American Legion/youth baseball coach, arguably the community’s favorite Santa Claus, a longtime Optimist Club member, a part of the Northeast Nebraska Area Agency on Aging Board of Directors, a Peace Lutheran Church Choir singer and a former Columbus Public Schools Board of Education member, among many other things.
But he prefers just “Ron,” the guy who strives to make a difference where he can.
“To me, I didn’t really ever think about what I was doing as volunteering,” Schilling said. “I’ve always just felt that if there’s something that needs to be done, I want to help find a means to get it done. That’s just my nature.”
That generous spirit is in part why on Thursday, April 27th, Schilling was honored with the Charles Farnham Community Volunteer of the Year award during the Columbus Area Chamber’s annual celebration at the Ramada Hotel and River’s Edge Convention Center.
“Ron is a true example of a ‘volunteer’ who shares his time and talent and doesn’t expect recognition,” Chamber Membership and Community Engagement Director Sandie Fischer said.
“He was in my office the other day and once again reminded me that there are so many more people who deserve this award because of their contributions to our community and I agreed with him. But this was his year to be honored. We all have the exact number of hours in a day and volunteers make sure that every one of those minutes counts.”
Chamber President Dawson Brunswick echoed that sentiment, recalling that Schilling made an impression on him when they first met a few years ago. Brunswick said he has great respect for all the ways Schilling has and continues to serve Columbus.
“It was clear from my first day of knowing Ron that he was the definition of community volunteer for Columbus,” Brunswick said.
Working hard to help others is something Schilling has spent essentially his entire life doing. He was just 12 when his father unexpectedly passed away from a possible brain aneurysm, leaving him, his mother and a man they hired to take over operations of the family farm in West Point.
“I had to grow up quickly, and I had to lead,” Schilling recalled. “I did all of the fieldwork. I’d come home from school, got on the tractor and plowed until 10 o’clock at night. Wake up the next day, go to school and do it again. On the weekends, I was grinding feed and hauling manure.”
Athletics became his escape. He jumped into various sports, competing in track, playing basketball and quarterbacking in high school and while attending then-Midland College (now University) in Fremont. But baseball quickly became his favorite, as he often would find peace on the farm by working on his pitching in his makeshift practice area.
“I started playing in grade school, and I eventually played every position except catcher,” he recalled. “I was a utility guy.”
Schilling had one coach who not only encouraged him to embrace his education and graduate high school but also inspired him to pursue coaching and teaching as a profession.
He was on that trajectory while at Midland, as he began coaching in a baseball recreation league there in 1959 while also studying to earn his degree. But when an opportunity to make a good living by joining Valmont Industries came to his attention, he ended up ditching the classroom after two years in Fremont and relocated to Dodge City, Kansas, with his wife to take a Valmont job.
In 1974, Schilling and his family relocated to Columbus when Valmont opened an irrigation company store in town. He would go on to work for Lindsay Manufacturing Company for several years before spending some time in the insurance industry and eventually retiring in the 2000s.
But throughout all of that, sports and coaching – specifically baseball – have been instrumental to his life.
“I love to teach the fundamentals of the game; I love to teach kids the right way of doing things,” Schilling said. “Even today, I watch games and couldn’t tell you the score. I’m watching for what the hitters do, how the pitchers release the ball, those types of things.”
Since arriving in Columbus 49 years ago, Schilling has made an impact in a variety of ways. He has always had a presence in youth baseball, having run the local Little League program for a decade, and coached in the PONY and American Legion leagues. He’s also umpired baseball games at various levels from Little League to college, as well as dabbled in refereeing basketball and football games.
More recently he has served as an assistant coach on a Legion team whose head coach is one of his sons, Cody. He momentarily thought about hanging up his cap this year, but couldn’t resist returning to the dugout when the kids and parents asked him to come back.
“I’m having a ball working with the kids,” Schilling said, recalling a special moment several years back in which it was pointed out to him he, his son and one of his grandsons were three generations of one family on a local baseball field together.
Schilling is also approaching the 19-year mark serving the Third Ward on the Columbus City Council.
“It’s an honor to say that Ron is a friend and has been a good councilman for the years he has been involved with the City and the City Council,” Mayor Jim Bulkley said. “Giving one’s time is one of the greatest things an individual can do. Ron Schilling has been a testament to that, giving his time for many things.”
A longtime member of the Columbus Optimist Club, Schilling for quite some time has been dressing as Santa Claus during the holidays as a way to help raise money to support the service club’s programs. Years ago, he also started serving as the Chamber’s Santa in Frankfort Square.
“It’s fun,” he said, noting that friend and fellow Club member Gene Trouba also makes Santa appearances throughout the area. “I love seeing the kids.”
Schilling praised Trouba for helping him with Santa appearances, noting they estimate between the two of them that they visited with about 2,000 area kids last holiday season.
Another initiative he’s especially proud of was working with Mike Fleming to help launch the T4C (Time for Change) Coalition to prevent and reduce youth involvement in local gang activity years ago.
“It really helped clean things up,” said Schilling, who served as the program’s youth activity director.
Schilling has been involved with all sorts of endeavors and organizations throughout the years but doesn’t put himself in any sort of special class. The father of five sons who now has eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren is just someone who loves his family, his faith, helping others and rounds of golf when he can squeeze them in.
“I don’t look at it as me doing something unique. There are so many people who do so much more than me,” a humbled Schilling said. “I don’t want to slow down; I want to keep my mind working. I do what I do to make a difference and help.”
(ABOUT THE PHOTO: Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Dawson Brunswick, left, watches after presenting City Councilman Ron Schilling with the Charles Farnham Community Volunteer of the Year award on Thursday night at the Ramada Hotel and River's Edge Convention Center.)