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Reading Habit Trains the Mind

In the heart of Schuldes Sports Center is an office full of the kind of memorabilia that accretes in a work-life driven by those twin imposters: triumph and disaster. But ask its occupant, Russ Schmelzer ’82, which memento he treasures most and he’ll reach into his desk drawer and pull out a carefully maintained list – a list of books.

Schmelzer, head athletics trainer at St. Norbert College, keeps a list of every title he reads. His hobby syncs well with at least one aspect of his job: A more than seven-hour winter bus ride to Michigan may seem like a burden to most but, for Schmelzer, it’s an opportunity. When we spoke with him, he had already picked out a book for his upcoming trip to Adrian College with the Green Knight hockey team.

“It’s the latest biography of Ted Williams. It’s around 760 pages,” he says. “I will put in my earplugs and read on the bus all the way there and all the way back.”

Schmelzer has kept his log since 2000. The list serves as an album of his life, of sorts.

“I can look back at the list and see that I read this book when I was on vacation,” he says. “I was in Minneapolis for the Frozen Four when I was reading that book. Some of those things come to mind.”

The number of books read in a year coincides with events in his life. Schmelzer read 46 books in 2005 and 42 books the following year. In 2007, his total dropped to 10 books.

“My daughter was born in April of that year,” he explains. “From April on, I only read three books. In 2008, I only read four books. I was so wrapped in her first year that I didn’t have time.”

A habit since early days
Schmelzer, who can tell you he read 37 books last year, traces his zeal for reading to his childhood. His parents were daily readers of both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Daily News. He chose books as his medium and would often make his way to the attic with a Hardy Boys mystery or another story in hand.

Today, United States history tops his list, including Robert Caro’s biographical series on Lyndon B. Johnson and books on the space race of the 1960s.

“I read biographies most of all,” says Schmelzer. “I’m a history buff. I aced U.S. history in high school. I was big on history from Truman on … . I don’t really get into fiction but, once in a while, one will come up.

“I will read sports biographies if they are in-depth. I just read the latest on Michael Jordan, which was more than 600 pages.”

Fresh on the page
Schmelzer, a former basketball player at St. Norbert, owns an e-reader, but he prefers the bound pages. The early morning is his favorite time to read because “my mind is fresh, I’m awake and the house is quiet.”

His reading habits also include embarking on multiple books at one time.

“I’m currently reading a book about Nixon’s ‘Checkers Speech,’ says Schmelzer. “As a second book, I choose one that doesn’t require me to keep reading it in order to remember what is going on. The one I have now has short chapters. It’s a book about authors talking about their favorite bookstore. If I need a break from the big book I’m reading, I will go to that one.”

Schmelzer, who is in his 34th year at the college, is a fan of bookstores. Before visiting a new city, he often goes online to find the used and independent book retailers. He also frequents the library. He adds books of interest to a “wish list” on his e-reader.

Schmelzer rarely stops reading a book before completion, but it has happened on occasion. “I try not to do that,” he says. “One that I can recall is ‘Founding Brothers’ about the guys of the 1776 Continental Congress. It’s right up my alley as far as my interests and was a best seller, but I found it to be so dry. I reached the point where I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ There are times where it’s a good book, but I’m not in the mood for it. Two years later I will pick it up again.”

Logging the miles
Schmelzer records the number of pages of each book in his log. He enjoys long books. One of the Johnson volumes, for example, is 1,040 pages.

He has read some favorites for a second time. “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurty was the first book he repeated. Schmelzer plans to revisit the horror novel “It” by Stephen King.

The book-versus-film debate is a non-issue for Schmelzer because he is not a fan of movies. He leaves the DVDs, Blu-rays and video downloads to the student-athletes.

“The players like to watch movies on the bus,” he said. “They all plug into one device or another. The only time I use technology [on the bus] is when the lighting is bad. When there isn’t enough light to read my book, I will use my Nook.”

Any good-natured ribbing from the athletes about his pastime doesn’t bother Schmelzer. He receives some playful teasing at home.

“My wife makes fun of me all the time because I’m always reading,” he says with a laugh. “There’s nothing better than a good book.”

Feb. 3, 2015