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An empty seat - Gillette News Record: News

An empty seat

A tow truck driver's life is cut short; his family grieves the loss of a grandfather and friend

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Posted: Saturday, November 24, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 2:11 pm, Tue Nov 5, 2013.

He meant a variety of things to a lot of people.

Larry “Papa” Schofield was a father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend.

The 65-year-old man was the great provider for his family, so much so that rather than retire, he joined with his grandson-in-law to start a retirement business. It would be a business in which he could help people while support his great-grandchildren.

When they started out, no one ever thought that the simple business, towing cars, that included grand plans to keep drunken drivers off of the road, would be the thing that killed him.

View from the porch

Logan Schofield, 6, jumped on and off a porch swing Wednesday afternoon as a constant string of family and friends streamed into the front door of his Sioux Avenue house with arms full of groceries and flowers.

Sobs and hugs are all that interrupted the melodic creak of its hinges as the seat moved back and forth.

Next to him was a depression in the cushion where the man affectionately known as “Papa” usually sat.

From that perch, Larry watched his great-grandson Logan grow from a baby into a precocious boy. He watched his second great-grandson Devin, 2, learn to walk. He held his 1-year-old twin great-grandchildren Mason and Jaden, as he and their father, Mike Kelly, dreamed aloud about the towing business they’d own.

From that spot, rain or shine, winter or summer, with a bear hug, Larry sent Logan off to school every day and greeted him when he got home.

It is the same hug Larry gave Logan last Sunday night before heading out for quick ride in his new tow truck to do a job.

That was the last hug the boy would ever get from the man who has helped raise him as his own son since birth. The man he called “Papa.”

The night

It was supposed to be a routine ride to tow a disabled van the evening of Nov. 18 when Mike Kelly and Larry Schofield left their home with one of their two trucks.

Mike, a veteran tow truck driver, was working with his grandfather-in-law for the towing business the pair recently bought. He was training Larry to share the towing work so that the business would be a retirement job for Larry, and would help Mike guarantee a good life for his children.

“He did that to help me and my family,” Mike said through tears. “I wanted him to go on more accident runs because I wanted him to be familiar with them. We were doing it so that next year our life would be a lot better than it is now.”

The men bought Tony’s Towing and renamed it Camel Towing and began work. It was a big move for Larry to buy a business, but one that he knew could mean good things for his family.

They planned to do innovative things such as shuttling people home from bars, their vehicles safe on the company’s flatbed tow truck, for $30 a ride. It would be a public service of sorts to keep people from drinking and driving.

“I told him, ‘we’ll make it work, we’ll be all right,’” Mike said remembering the day the pair signed the paperwork to buy the company.

Sunday’s was a simple job, tow a disabled minivan from near the eastbound Interstate 90 on ramp from South Douglas Highway. The owner of the van was headed from Idaho to visit his girlfriend in Missouri when he hit a deer.

The ride turned out to be anything but routine.

A split second

It took only a second for everything to change.

Mike turned away for a moment to help the owner of the van get his dog from the vehicle and when he turned back, it was too late.

All Mike saw was the flash of the silver truck traveling at highway speeds and then Larry was gone.

He ran to where Schofield landed more than 100 feet down the highway. He held Larry through his last gasps for life.

Mike knelt on the cold pavement as life slipped away from the man he looked up to as though he was his own grandfather. The man who had, three years ago, accepted Mike, a man with a checkered history, into his home without reservation, without judgment.

“I didn’t want to leave him by himself on the road,” Mike said covering his face to shelter two of his young children from his tears, from his grief. “They made me leave.”

Police had to pry Mike’s arms from Larry’s body because they could see what he couldn’t.

It was too late, Larry was already gone.

Knowing ‘Papa’

The bear of a man — a teddy, not a grizzly even though he was 6 feet 3 inches tall and 320 pounds at his last checkup — moved to town in 1976 when Gillette still could be considered small.

The Greenville, Mich., native quickly fell in love with his new home.

He helped build the first coal silo at Wyodak mine and in 1978 began working at Bell Ayr mine. Later, he transferred to Eagle Butte mine where he worked as a shovel operator. After 35 years working in the pits, Larry finally planned to retire.

He had agreed to call it quits in June, but not before he turned 66 on May 11. For some reason he wanted to turn 66 before hanging up his hard hat.

The towing business would be something to keep him busy in retirement. And it would allow him to keep doing the one thing he really loved to do, help people.

“He’s your best friend,” said Larry’s daughter, Kelly Schofield. “You couldn’t go anywhere with him without running into at least three people he knew.”

Larry’s stature could be frightening, but one of his meaty paws extended, a wide grin and light-hearted chuckle was more than enough to break the ice.

Larry used his comforting personality to help people get through difficult times while he ran the company’s tow trucks. Yeah, it might take him twice as long to get the job done, but that didn’t matter to the man who cared more about other people than making a buck.

His is the same grin and chuckle that his youngest great-grandchildren, Mason and Jaden Kelly, mimic.

For more than six years, Larry’s house has been a home for his granddaughter and great-grandchildren. He was a wrestling buddy, a friend and a second dad.

The 1-year-old twins climbed over their dad, Mike, Wednesday afternoon as he sat in the seat on the couch Larry usually occupied when he was relaxing at home with his family.

“He would do anything for anybody,” Kelly Schofield said. “His door was always open. He loved what he did.”

Larry could be seen rain or shine riding his bright blue Harley-Davidson motorcycle, his pride and joy, in any funeral procession he heard about.

“He would ride whether he knew people or not,” Lacey Kelly said. “He thought everybody deserves one last ride.”

The choices others make

Justin Lynn Helsper, 28, the man accused of killing Larry Schofield sits in jail, held there by a $150,000 cash-only bond set Tuesday by Circuit Judge Terrill R. Tharp.

Highway Patrol Troopers say that Helsper decided to drive home that fateful night despite the fact that he had been drinking heavily. Just a few miles from where he started, troopers say, Helsper ran over and killed Schofield. Then, he kept driving for more than two miles before he stopped his 2001 Chevrolet pickup for a trooper who pulled him over.

Troopers told the Schofield family that an onboard computer in Helsper’s truck showed he hit Larry at highway speeds and tapped his brakes only momentarily at impact, then accelerated away from the scene.

“He didn’t even slow down, he didn’t even stop, he didn’t even care,” said Mike Kelly, who still wears the hospital bracelet from the night of the wreck. “Accidents happen, but that wasn’t an accident.”

Helsper’s truck hit Schofield so hard that his wallet and chain left a perfect embossed impression in its metal fender.

“Everybody says everything happens for a reason,” said Scott Schofield, Larry’s son. “There was no reason for this.”

A portable breath test Helsper submitted to six hours after the wreck showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.254, more than three times the legal limit to drive a vehicle.

That test came after Helsper initially refused to cooperate with troopers who arrested him on suspicion of aggravated vehicular homicide, a felony, and three misdemeanor charges, including drunken driving.

If convicted, the drunken driving would be Helsper’s third in three years, and the second one to involve a hit-and-run wreck. He could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison on the felony charge.

But that’s not nearly long enough for the family that is grieving the loss of its patriarch who rarely did as much as sip an alcoholic drink.

“We won’t get the justice we want,” Scott Schofield said. “We know that one day he will walk out of jail, he’ll see his kids again.”

The choice Helsper made to get behind the wheel of his truck that night is one that Scott Schofield believes should put him behind bars for life. It should carry with it consequences that serve justice for victims like his father, he said.

Scott and his family have vowed to show up to every court appearance, no matter how painful and ensure justice is served.

And if they have to, they will fight for stronger legislation to make sure nobody has to pay the price their father did Nov. 18.

One last ride

Shortly after news of Larry Schofield’s death began to spread, tow truck drivers and bikers from across the region began to call.

They wanted to do something to honor the man who always told his family, he didn’t want anybody to fuss over him when he was gone.

But it just wouldn’t be right to lay Larry Schofield to rest without giving him the honor of one last ride, an honor that he bestowed on so many others.

So Monday afternoon, at about the same time Larry usually sat on his porch waiting for his great-grandson to get home from school, tow trucks and motorcycles will gather at Dalbey Memorial Park.

In the lead will be Mike Kelly atop Schofield’s blue motorcycle and one of the company’s tow trucks that now wears a decal on its boom that reads, “in loving memory of Papa.”

Logan will climb onto the back of a motorcycle along with his dad, mom, grandparents and friends and will give his grandfather the honor he deserves.

It will be one last ride for Larry “Papa” Schofield.

A last ride with ‘Papa’

If you want to join the line of tow trucks and motorcycles to honor Larry Schofield with a last ride, his family asks that you meet at Dalbey Memorial Park by 2 p.m. Monday.

The procession will flow from there up South Douglas Highway to Second Street then turn left and head for American Legion Post #42.

A celebration of life for Larry will begin there at 3 p.m.

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