The pads of Raymond Edwin Schnell's bulging hands were calloused by more than 70 years of laying bricks.

A mason by trade, Mr. Schnell was sharpened by a German work ethic he got from his grandfather Constantine, a rigid etiquette from his preacher mother, and an exactness of his own that led to exquisite brickwork in homes across Columbia.

Before he died on May 20, he'd bricked, built or flipped hundreds of local homes. He was 85.

And yet the precision of Mr. Schnell's masonry, his determination to get his work done and done right the first time, stemmed only from the fierce desire to support and protect the people he loved. There was a special beauty for him in a firm foundation, so he became one, both for the city and for his family.

Mr. Schnell was born June 13, 1932. He began spreading mortar at 7, bricking houses at 14, and by 17 he had built his first home. He dropped out of Hickman High School with two weeks left in his senior year because he was ready to get to work.

Mr. Schnell's heritage in Columbia runs deep. His grandfather, Constantine Schnell, immigrated to Missouri from Germany to avoid serving in the military. Constantine, who worked for a local dairy, made some of the first batches of tiger stripe ice cream, according to Mr. Schnell's eldest son, Randy Schnell. The neighborhood on Charles Street and east of Charles Street is known on paper as Schnell Subdivision, after Mr. Schnell and his father, Roy, also a brickmason, helped develop the area. Roy Schnell did much of the brickwork on West Boulevard, and Raymond Schnell, who went by his middle name Edwin, built some of the first houses on Creasy Springs Road and Charles Street. He also spent more than 10 years tuck pointing, a repair process of replacing the mortar between bricks, for University Hospital.

Mr. Schnell was a human complement to his masonry.

"Everything was 90-degree angles and straight lines," Randy Schnell said. "He was about as straight an arrow as they come."

And yet within those straight lines, Mr. Schnell corralled life's goodness. He was rigid about working hard, being kind, sticking it out during the hard times and always looking for and preserving beauty. He could spot it in the people around him or in the brickwork of a home well laid, according to his daughter, Tammy Webb.

When the Calvary Baptist Church near Worley Street wanted to raze a nearby house so it could have a parking lot, it was Mr. Schnell who saw the beauty in the building, Webb said. He bought the house and had it moved to Pearl Avenue, where the home still stands.

Mr. Schnell married and divorced three times. He and his first wife adopted Randy Schnell when he was five days old. His third wife brought three more children, including 1-year-old Webb, into Mr. Schnell's life. From then on, he was never "step-dad," he was always "dad." Webb, a nurse who works at Lenoir Woods, the senior center that became Mr. Schnell's home in his final years, was holding her dad's hand when he died.

With the exception of a few years he served in the U.S. Army in San Francisco, Mr. Schnell laid bricks in his white t-shirt and blue work pants from before sunup to long after sundown, even on Sundays. Once, when he was out working with his son Randy, it was getting dark, so Randy started packing things up. His father asked what he was doing. "We've got headlights," he told his son.

Yet his stringent work schedule never stopped him from driving Webb to school when she was a child — she didn't want to ride the bus — and, later, to work at 5:30 in the morning, after she had children of her own. Nor did it stop him from teaching Webb to snag pennies she saw lying around, to drive a stick shift, to change oil and tires or to remember the parts of a lawn mower. He played guitar, old country songs from Hank Williams' era and hours upon hours of Monopoly and cards with his kids and grandkids. His jitterbug won him at least two local dance competitions, Randy Schnell said. He had humor as dry as bricks, and when he laughed, he guffawed.

Even when things were hard, with work or with family, Mr. Schnell stuck it out.

"He always had an opportunity to walk away, but he never did," Webb said. "He was in it for the long haul."

When the Parkinsons and the dementia were getting bad, Mr. Schnell got into the habit of hollering about this or that, so a nurse at Lenoir playfully told him that, each time he hollered, he owed her $10. When Webb was cleaning out his room this past week, she found an envelope full of "hollering money" Mr. Schnell had kept for the nurse. Even in his final months, Mr. Schnell was true to his word.

He was generous, too. He kept a fridge full of Pepsi in his room and he was always willing to share a bottle with anyone who wanted one. He liked company, Webb said. He never met a stranger. When visitors left his home, he'd say, "Come back when you can stay longer." When Webb drove him to Gerbes to get his requisite breakfast of a chocolate long john and chocolate milk, he'd almost make her late to work because he'd be visiting with someone he knew in the store.

Mr. Schnell was as particular as he was social — meticulous about everything: the way he threaded a worm on his fish hook (he spit on it afterward, because he said the fish liked it that way), how he wanted his kids to treat people ("use tact") and the color and style of his coffin (he always said he wanted to go out in a Cadillac).

That devotion to doing things right, that dedication to his family, his friends and his work ethic, made him a good mason for the town and a steadfast father for his kids.

"You don't meet many people like that any more," Webb said. People who were really willing to stay, to make sure the bricks were straight, the walls were firm, even on the worst of days.

"He always had that unconditional love," Webb said. "No matter what."

Supervising editor is Brendan Crowley.

  • Alexis Allison is a reporter, graphics designer and master's student. She studies data journalism and likes to write deeply human stories — especially those that involve public health. Drop her a line at

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