Chautauqua Conversations: Chautauqua’s ‘Uncle’ Howie: Capturing youthful moments for years

Just inside the Bestor Plaza entrance to the Brick Walk Cafe, four children are intent on nine picture boards arrayed for their inspection. Fronting one group of boards is a smaller placard offering the free photographic services of “Uncle Howie” Schiller. Pictured are a caricature of Schiller by longtime Chautauqua cartoonist Ed Harmon, as well as Schiller’s contact information.

The four kids are looking at the picture boards, tentatively at first, then more confidently. They are looking for images of themselves and their friends. The chances are pretty good they’ll be successful, because Schiller estimates he has snapped more than 20,000 photos of children over the past 22 years at Chautauqua.

He talked recently about how he came to do this, and what it means to him. His wife of 68 years, Bobby, sat in on our conversation and offered the occasional correction or corroboration.

A few of Schiller’s favorite photos accompany this column.

Caronline-Cookemet Bobby when I was 17 and she was 15. Our family had a mutual friend who invited us both to a bar mitzvah, and she thought I would be a good escort for a young woman 15 years old. As it turned out, I had a stomachache and didn’t show up, but my entire family did meet Bobby and fell in love with her on the spot. My mother came back with Bobby’s name and address and told me I had to call this young lady; she was a doll.

At this point I was living in Manhattan and Bobby in the Bronx, which was much more fashionable in those days than perhaps it is now. I called her, and that’s how it started.

I was in my third year of college at St. John’s University when I was drafted into the army. This was in 1944. While I was away in the army, Bobby and I corresponded very closely, and when I came home on leave about a year or so later, I gave her a ring. Our families were, to put it mildly, quite happy.

So we were married in August 1946. Bobby, at 19, could get a marriage license on her own in those days as a female. At 20, as a male under 21, I needed my mother’s permission to get married! We moved in with Bobby’s mother and father in their apartment in the Bronx.

I went back to St. John’s to finish up my undergraduate degree. Bobby, who had been studying at Hunter College in New York City, suspended her studies to work, since we had no other income. She got a job as a dental assistant in New York. We lived with her folks for several years until we got a place in Jamaica, Brooklyn. Later, she finished at Hunter and became a teacher.

She taught for over 20 years after the kids started in school. This would be the late 1950s. All I can say is, I worked over 50 years for the same company, she taught 20-plus years for the school system, and her pension is bigger than mine! We’ve been married 68 years this month.

I graduated from St. John’s in 1948. I got a job with Finlay-Straus jewelers in Manhattan. I remained with that company until I retired in 1991, though I stayed on in various capacities through 2008. By the time I finished up there it was the second or third largest jewelry firm in the country, becoming Finlay Fine along the way.

I began there as an accounting trainee under the GI Bill. Over time, I became the comptroller and eventually the general manager. We were at Fifth Avenue and 43rd street after several moves. I travelled a lot, doing inventory and checking on things. My business career was good for me.

Abby-CrayOriginally Finlay-Straus maintained small jewelry stores, but then they expanded. Finlay’s business became managing leased space in major department stores like Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Bon Ton, Lord and Taylor and Dillard’s. We ran the jewelry departments. We stocked their jewelry departments and we’d get our cut of their sales. Leased departments in department stores are not uncommon.

Meanwhile, our son Rick was born in 1951. We lived in Elmont, Long Island, for nearly 40 years until we relocated to Delray Beach, Florida, in 1991. That’s our winter home now. Our second child Laurie was born in Long Island, and both of our kids have lived in Cleveland for a while.

That latter fact was important. Bobby had heard from teacher friends about Chautauqua, and so she visited with our daughter in Cleveland and they drove over here to visit. I wasn’t interested in buying in Chautauqua. I was a New York City person and had never heard of the place. It was in the boondocks.

But Bobby convinced me, and buying here is the best thing we have ever done. During our first season in Chautauqua we rented for a few weeks. I was still working at the time. After I retired we bought a place here. Now we have four grandchildren.

When we first arrived our grandchildren were young, and had lots of friends. I started taking snapshots. I’m no professional photographer, but I like to fool around with a camera. We soon had so many pictures that I didn’t know what to do with them.

Then the old Sadie J’s permitted me to put up some of them in their restaurant. When I outgrew that the Institution gave me permission to put up wallboards full of pictures at what is now the Brick Walk Cafe. I guess I have nine or 10 boards displayed now at the café.

I have to confess that I don’t go to the morning lectures, though Bobby goes pretty faithfully. I used to play golf but have stopped this summer. I mostly wander around photographing children and I love it. It’s been the most rewarding thing in the world for me. I guess I must have taken over 20,000 pictures over the years.

Isabelle-DawsonIn all that time only a couple of dozen kids were too shy to let me take their pictures. The parents are always there and I get their permission. It might seem funny, an old man like me taking pictures of little kids. But people got to know me, and it’s kind of snowballed.

I always give the family a copy of the pictures, and if they will be leaving soon I get an address and mail the picture to them. Emailing pictures seems too modern for me, but maybe I’ll learn to do it.

Now, I’m starting to take pictures of kids of people whose parents I photographed!

People do ask me how much I charge. I tell them there is no charge. If they insist, I suggest they make a contribution to the Chautauqua Fund. At the Development Office they keep track of contributions made as a result of my photos. Over the years, from 2002 to 2013, I guess they got $29,000 that way.

Since Chautauqua has been so good to us, we want to give back. That’s one way to do that.

We do love our Chautauqua Overlook neighborhood, in the south end of the grounds. When we moved in we joined Joan Smith and invited everyone in the neighborhood for breakfast of bagels and coffee. Now the Lakewood bagel place is no more, and so we don’t do that anymore. We do get together for cookouts.

I guess people still call me the mayor of the Overlook. You could do worse.

Family members are gathering Howie Schiller’s photos for a 2015 commemorative publication. Chautauquans can contribute at