Growing up in a community just outside Cincinnati, Ohio, helped shape William “Bill” Schwab’s life in more ways than one.
Schwab, 76, described his childhood living situation in simple terms. Five families shared 5 acres and basically lived intertwined lives.
Living with other families instilled a strong sense of community in Schwab, something he believes led him to a career in the ministry and eventually a job as the pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, Washington.
“I grew up in the church, but my experience with these five families, there were 13 of us, that sense of community was a rich experience,” he said. “The church, in a larger sense, is a community of people. I was nurtured, without really knowing it.”
In college he was a sociology and anthropology major at the University of Cincinnati. After that, he decided to go to seminary.
He ended up at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves. Early on, he admits he wasn’t sure he made the right call.
“I wasn’t sure when I came to seminary that I wanted to be a minister,” he said. “As I went to school and as I did contextual education — you are assigned to work with a church or helping agency every year — it became clear, ‘I can do this.’ ”
Schwab said seminary allowed him a chance to experience the whole gamut of what the ministry had to offer.
Schwab was able to spend time with people of a variety of different backgrounds at a time, during the civil rights movement, that made a lasting impression.
“I was in the seminary in the ’60s and that was a time of a lot of racial unrest,” he said. “One of my assignments was in an African-American church in East St. Louis for 18 months. That was a powerful experience.”
He got his start at a church in O’Fallon. He spent eight years there before coming to Washington, but not St. Peter’s.
Schwab said the Church of Christ called him and offered a position in administration. He did that job for a few years, but missed being in the church — he missed the community.
“I really missed being in a parish,” he said.
The church agreed to let him out of his administrative duties and put him back in charge of a congregation. He was able to take over as the pastor of St. Peter’s.
Schwab called the job time-consuming and rewarding. Being the pastor meant being involved in people’s lives — he was around for baptisms, weddings and funerals. The job often meant being on-call 24/7.
Constantly having to be available may be a burden for some people but Schwab said it was the best part of his job. He said being with people in crisis was the most rewarding part of being a pastor.
“I think being with people in crisis, trying to be what I call the nonanxious presence when people’s worlds are falling apart — when they’re frantic, the pastor is called upon to keep his head,” he said. “I went with people through suicides, through traffic deaths, you name it.”
After 24 years, Schwab retired from St. Peter’s in 2006.
“It was a good, long stint,” he said.
He’s not entirely retired from the profession, however. He and another pastor split time at Zion United Church of Christ in Oakfield. The two Sundays he works a month allow him to give sermons, but also give him time away from a full-time ministry.
Retiring from the church allowed him to connect to another past time from his childhood.
Faced with a sudden influx of free time, Schwab become heavily involved with Shaw Nature Reserve. For 13 years, he has volunteered his time working in the lab at the reserve.
“I work in the horticulture department cleaning and seeds propagating plants,” he said. “I work in the lab where I am involved in research.”
Schwab said growing up there was always a garden around for the five families. The neighbors grew their own fruits and vegetables and the children were tasked with helping out. He remembers being in charge of spraying the roses.
“We didn’t have any livestock, but we basically grew all our own food,” he said.
His first job was actually working in a greenhouse. So when it came time to leave the church, getting back to spending time with plants was his plan.
“When I got to be about 60 years old, I thought ‘I’m going to retire one of these days,’ ” he said. “When I was pastor, it was a large congregation and it was almost all- consuming. I thought I was going to need something to do.”
Looking to fill the time, he settled on becoming a Master Gardener through the University of Missouri Extension Office. He passed the 10-week course, and during that time he came into contact with Shaw Nature Reserve.
“I needed someplace where my time could be flexible, and that worked out,” he said.
Once he got certified as a Master Gardener, he took another class from the extension office and became a Master Naturalist.
“I learned a lot,” he said.
His interest in plants is part aesthetics — Schwab said he loves the way they look — and part an interest in learning.
At Shaws he’s gotten down to the nitty-gritty of plant life.
“It’s really been a meaningful experience to me,” he said.
A big part of the gig at Shaw is working with native plants. Schwab said the team conducts research on the plants native to Missouri. The research leads to the production of the plants and seeds.
“The Missouri Botanical Garden is trying to collect specimens of all the native plants in Missouri. I think there’s 2,400, so they’re collected and brought back to the lab in Gray Summit,” he said. “We clean them, we photograph them and we count them. We store them in deep freezers and then people from really all over the world, contact the lab for seed specimens.”
One of those communities that has used the native plants is Washington. Schwab said since he’s been with Shaw, he’s noticed an uptick of native plants around town. He said the plant life at Phoenix Park, for example, is something he knows he created.
“They give me a table in the greenhouse and there’s a lot of plants around town that I’ve donated,” he said.
His work at Shaw may be parttime, but he takes it seriously. He usually stops by the lab two days a week and has clocked in hundreds of hours.
In 2017, he was recognized by the Missouri Botanical Garden as one of the most dedicated volunteers in the organization.
“Out of 1,700 volunteers, they recognized eight, so I’m proud of that,” he said.
When he’s not at the lab, there’s a good chance Schwab is reading a book.
A lifelong reader, Schwab has used his retirement to dive headfirst into his love of books. He reads several books a month.
Schwab said during his time as a pastor he read a lot, but not often just to pass the time. He was often looking for sermon ideas or reading Scripture.
Without having to prepare a regular sermon, he’s been able to read more — mostly nonfiction. While he occasionally likes to read a piece of fiction, he said he mostly likes to read to challenge his mind.
“I’ve been able to read what I want to read, instead of having to read for work,” he said.
His favorite topics are biographies and history because it gives him a chance to keep learning new things, he said.
“The biographies interest me because I like to see how other people figure out life,” he said.
A few times a month, he writes book reviews for The Missourian. Schwab wrote thousands of sermons in his life, but writing about books was a new outlet for his words.
“Chris Stuckenschneider asked me to write for her MO Books blog,” he said. “I probably average three book reviews a month. She provides the books and I send the reviews.”
When not reading, he volunteers for other groups and stays active. He is a longtime supporter of the Washington Historical Society and a past president of the group.
Schwab still resides in Washington with his wife, Diane. The couple have been married for 52 years and have two adult children, Jeff and Jennifer, and four grandchildren.