Sheila Catherine (née Rapp) Stempel

EAST BERNE — Raising six children and helping to run her family’s sawmill business, Sheila Stempel got through tough times by relying on her humor and by singing with strength and passion.

As a young woman, she flew solo. As a middle-aged woman, she cooked an incomparable meatloaf and was part of countless community organizations. And as a “young-at-heart older woman” — “she would never call herself old,” said her daughter — she told stories, sang songs, and was delighted to hold a newborn great-grandchild.

Mrs. Stempel died on on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, one day shy of her 87th birthday.

“Mom loved a good joke,” said her daughter, Sandra Stempel Kisselback. “Humor was a big part of her life. She liked to razz people. She’d win the hearts of people by kidding around.” Ms. Kisselback shared a couple of her mother’s favorites.

Mrs. Stempel would instruct people, “Ask me if I’m all right.” People played along and asked the question: “Are you all right?” to which she would reply, “No, I’m half left.”

Then, if you left the room with the parting phrase, “I’ll be back,” she would respond with, “OK, Arnold,” a reference to one of her favorite action stars, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had used the catchphrase “I’ll be back” in “The Terminator” film.

Mrs. Stempel also loved music. In her youth, she sang solos in Albany Minstrel shows and performed at her alma mater, Albany High School, and at anniversary celebrations.

A soprano, Mrs. Stempel had a clear, strong voice. “Mom filled the house with music with her passion exploding from the piano, playing ‘To Dream the Impossible Dream,’ ‘Chariots of Fire,’ and many improvisational melding of notes,” her daughter said.

“She would sing hymns at funeral services,” her daughter added. “It was powerful.”

She also said, “Mom was the organist for the Thompson’s Lake Reformed Church for many years. She also arranged to fill the church with flowers each Easter.”

About religion, her daughter said, “She believed … But she questioned how God could let this happen when her son committed suicide.”

Mrs. Stempel wrote poetry with a passion, too. “Every time someone was born or had a birthday or an anniversary, she would write a poem, applauding your life. It was a keepsake. And she’d put a shiny penny in the card,” said her daughter.

Sheila Catherine (née Rapp) Stempel was born in Albany, the daughter of Walter Rapp and Catherine (née Munro) Rapp. Her father, a World War I veteran, worked as a mechanic. Her mother worked at Freihofer’s Bakery. She had one sibling, a sister named Germaine Olga. She joked that her sister had been named after two of her father’s girlfriends during the war.

Mrs. Stempel grew up on a block where her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived and was proud of her family heritage. Her grandfather, William Munro, came to America from Scotland as a boy and started a Scottish pipe band.

“His descendants are still going strong with the Schenectady Pipe Band,” said Ms. Kisselback. “She would pal up with her Grandpa, picking up coal spilled in the streets or fishing catfish along a stretch of today’s I-90. ‘Come on, Pet,’ Great-Grandpa would say, ‘let’s go do a little fishing.’”

Mrs. Stempel took piano lessons for 12 years, practicing on the piano at her grandparents’ house; there were two. “She couldn’t touch one of the pianos,” said Ms. Kisselback; that one was reserved for her grandmother alone.

In high school, Mrs. Stempel took business courses, learning both typing and shorthand. She went on to work for Bitner Air. “This is where she took flying lessons and made her first solo flight from Albany Airport,” her daughter said. “She would always joke that since her fingerprints were on file in Washington she’d have to be especially careful.”

Her Aunt Margaret was a telephone operator in East Berne, where Mrs. Stempel stayed one summer. While there, she went to a dance at the Maple Inn where she met Rudolph Valentino Stempel. “My father was there to meet someone for a date but, when he saw my mom, he decided he’d rather dance with her,” said Ms. Kisselback, “and they danced the night away.”

Sheila Stempel had reminisced, soon after her husband died, of the night they met, saying, “It was just one of those things: He was there, and we danced the night away. We did that most of our lives. Every weekend, we used to go dancing.” Her daughter added, “Every day was a new dance.”

Months later, they were engaged and Mr. Stempel joined the military the following January. He was sent to the front lines in Korea where he ran a bulldozer, building roads and digging holes for the tanks. He was honorably discharged in 1953.

“He went away for almost two years,” his wife said. “He came back, and we got married” — their wedding was on April 11, 1953 — “and started raising a family.”

They had six children: Catherine, Brian, Sandra, Linda, Greg, and Eric.

After getting married, Mr. Stempel took his life savings and bought a sawmill, which he used to cut lumber to build his home. The Rudy Stempel Family Sawmill would eventually grow into a well-known local business and its owner, known as “Rough-cut Rudy,” a Republican, was elected Berne supervisor in a predominantly Democratic town.

“He worked, and I did all his bookkeeping, and he didn’t believe in vacations,” Mrs. Stempel recalled.

Mrs. Stempel was most recently president and chairwoman of the board for the family sawmill. “Mom also worked for the State Tax Department and for a plumbing supply company along the way,” her daughter said.

Many of Mrs. Stempel’s family members worked for the railroad, Ms. Kisselback recalled, and they would take the Stempels on adventures to historic places of interest like Boston and the Statue of Liberty.

Mrs. Stempel took “great joy in going to the Knox Church auction and returning home with boxes of books plus a cute puppy one time … My mom and dad had lots of fun times together as I scan back to retrieve the scenes of our lives together as a family.”

Mrs. Stempel served her family meals every day at precisely noon and five o’clock. “You always had to have meals on time,” Mrs. Stempel said soon after her husband’s death in 2012. “It was like he had an alarm clock in his stomach.”

Mrs. Stempel was an “awesome cook,” her daughter said. She baked banana bread and jelly rolls and her family liked a meal she called “shit on a shingle” — corned beef with white sauce served over toast.

“Nobody could make meatloaf like my mom,” said Ms. Kisselback. She added, “Every night, we’d have ice cream.”

Although the couple argued, Ms. Kisselback said, she realized how much they meant to each other when her father told her, on the day before he died, “Your mother has been a good wife to me.”

Ms. Kisselback went on, “They supported each other through a lot of tragedy … They just didn’t give up.”

Mrs. Stempel was a steadfast supporter and 65-year member of the Order of the Eastern Star, a tradition started by her mother. One day, she thought she was going to an Eastern Star meeting and accidentally ended up in an Order of the Amaranth meeting. She joined and was a member for 19 years.

“Mom served in the roles as Royal Matron in the Amaranth and Matron for Eastern Star as well as countless years as secretary for both groups,” her daughter said. “Four years ago, she joined Daughters of the Nile, which her mother had been a member of.”

Mrs. Stempel also supported many community organizations. She was president of the PTA, a member of the Helderberg Garden Club, taught swimming lessons at Thacher Park’s olympic-size pool, was part of the Concerned Citizens of Berne group, supplied candies for the East Berne Indians Little League snack bar, and had a role in Sunday school lessons at Thompson’s Lake Reformed Church.

“Mom held life memberships in the Albany chapter of the Eastern Star, East Berne Auxiliary, and the Berne Historical Society,” her daughter said. “Her love of history, writing, and research led her down many paths. She wrote the biannual newsletter for the Berne Historical Society, submitted articles of local interest for the Helderberg Sun, and penned birthday poems, plus anniversary wishes for family and friends. The birth of a new grandchild or great-grandchild would elicit a poetic keepsake welcoming them to the world.”

In the last few weeks of her life, Mrs. Stempel focused on the song “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals. Her grandson Avery provided the words during her recent hospital stays and her son Brian spent many hours at his mother’s with his guitar as they belted out the “Rising Sun” words together.
 

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Sheila Catherine (née Rapp) Stempel is survived and is lovingly remembered by her children, Catherine Appleby and her husband, Arthur, Brian Stempel and his wife, Kathleen, Sandra Kisselback and her husband, James, and Linda Stempel-Gicewicz; by her daughter-in-law, Tammy Stempel; by her grandchildren, Avery, Nathan, Molly, Mark, Allen, Rudy-Greg, Gwen, Christopher, Sarah and Charlotte; and by her great-grandchildren, Kaya, Fox, Logan, Austin, Trevor, Ivy, Penelope, and three-month-old Miles.

She is also survived by nieces, nephews, and cousins.

Her husband of nearly 59 years, Rudolph “Rudy” V. Stempel, died before her as did her sons, Eric and Greg; her sister, Germaine Olga; and her son-in-law, Paul Gicewicz.

She was laid to rest, beside her husband, at Woodlawn Cemetery on Monday, Dec. 31. Her grandsons Nathan and Avery; her son Brian; her daughter Sandra; and her friend Jim Dunn each added a piece to the service “Celebrating the Amazing Life of Sheila C. Stempel.”

A community celebration of her life will be held on Saturday, Feb. 9, at 6 p.m. at the Berne Senior Community Center.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Helderberg Ambulance Squad, 978 Cole Hill Rd., East Berne, NY 12059, or to the Thompson’s Lake Reformed Church, 1210 Thacher Park Rd, East Berne, NY 12059.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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