Firefighters speak of a brother gone too soon

John Schoffstall

To hear those who knew him best tell it, John Schoffstall was born to serve the community but lived for his family.

Schoffstall, whose laugh could fill a firehouse, who would make a point to be at every sporting event of his son’s or daughter’s, who once took a label maker to everything in a fellow firefighter’s house, died Sunday from COVID-19 complications.

Ahead of his funeral Saturday, those who served alongside Schoffstall took time to remember their friend, their brother, a man gone too soon.

Ryan and Matt Goodwin grew up with Schoffstall, their fathers all being members of the New Goshen Fire Department in northwestern Vigo County.

Be it shining an engine, which as kids they found fun, or being "volun-told" to help at the department fish fry, Ryan Goodwin said it seemed he and Schoffstall were never far apart.

“We were always here. It’s what we did,” recalled Ryan.

So then it came as no surprise that Ryan and Schoffstall, to be followed a couple years later by Matt, started volunteering at New Goshen after graduating from high school.

Being young and eager to prove themselves, Ryan and Matt remember, the three would stay overnight at the firehouse, sleeping on couches or a hose bed, hoping to be the first out the door for a run.

“We would stay all night thinking we’d catch a run,” said Matt, now assistant chief with New Goshen. “We wanted to be here just to be first out the door for something.”

The brotherhood forged in the firehouse extended outside work as well, with the Goodwins and Schoffstall regularly going hunting, fishing and four-wheeling together.

In fact, Ryan said his family and the Schoffstalls were scheduled to take a trip together this year before COVID-19 forced closures and quarantines the world over.

“This is family,” said Ryan, firefighter and EMT with New Goshen. “You hear people in fire service talk about the brotherhood and the sisterhood — that’s exactly what it is.”

After fire protection stints at a lumber yard and Newport Chemical Depot, and as chief at New Goshen, Schoffstall extended his brotherhood to more than 100 others after joining  the Terre Haute Fire Department in 2009.

For the past three years, Schoffstall had been assigned to THFD’s Station 5 as its C-shift support and rescue truck driver.

Charles Kensell, a firefighter and paramedic assigned to Ladder 5 at Station 5, came on at the same time as Schoffstall.

He said Schoffstall, with his prior experience at New Goshen and elsewhere, was in a lot of ways a mentor, despite Kensell being three years older than Schoffstall.

“When I was hired on I had no fire experience, no EMS experience,” Kensell said. “So everything I’ve learned has been through guys like John. He always shared with me his experience and never made me feel like I should already know it, no matter how basic it was.”

It was that affable personality that endeared Schoffstall to his shift mates, they recall.

Floyd Mason, a THFD lieutenant at Station 5, said he couldn’t catch Schoffstall in a bad mood if he tried.

“He was always happy, he was always laughing,” said Mason, who’d previously worked with Schoffstall at both New Goshen and Newport.

“That laugh ... it echoed through the firehouse. The kind of guy everyone wanted to work with and one that’d be impossible to say a bad word about.”

Rich Gallagher, C-shift’s Ladder 5 driver, said Schoffstall could find ways to make you laugh even when he wasn’t around.

Gallagher says he’s known around the firehouse as someone who labels everything. So, when Gallagher invited Schoffstall to his house last year for a party, Schoffstall and a few others took Gallagher’s label maker and pasted labels to everything they could reach.

“I mean he labeled everything in my house,” Gallagher said. “That’s something I’ll never forget. It’s been over a year now, and I’m still finding things with labels on them.”

Each of his shift mates expressed condolences for Schoffstall’s wife and children, saying he would brag constantly on them.

Schoffstall’s captain, Eddie Hamblen, said anyone who knew anything about Schoffstall had almost certainly heard about Jennifer, Jake, Jaidyn and Janelle.

“Above all, his pride and joy was his family,” Hamblen said. “He was an amazing husband and father that was involved in all his kids’ sports.”

Kensell said much the same, offering that many dinners at the station revolved around family.

“He’d even have people cover a shift, parts of a shift, to make sure he could get to a volleyball game or go out of town for a travel dance competition or football game,” Kensell said.

“He didn’t miss anything, even if it meant using time to take off work.”

Schoffstall’s funeral is 11 a.m. Saturday at West Vigo High School. A tent will be set up for the display of Schoffstall’s casket, where his family will gather.

The public is invited to attend the service but must remain inside their vehicles in the parking lot.

The service will be broadcast on radio, via television and online by local media. At the conclusion of the service, the public may pay their respects by driving by Schoffstall’s casket.

Reporter Alex Modesitt can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at alex.modesitt@Tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarAlex. 

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