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Thursday, April 15th, 2010

St. Henry man identified as victim of fire

By Shelley Grieshop
NEW WESTON - Authorities believe it was a 78-year-old St. Henry man who perished in a cornfield fire in northern Darke County on Tuesday afternoon.
The victim found by firefighters was tentatively identified as Cletus W. Schmitz, formerly of New Weston. Darke County investigators believe Schmitz's clothing caught fire as he attempted to burn brush piles at a farm he owned along Lightsville Northern Road, south of state Route 705, in the New Weston area.
A positive forensic identification is still pending, but circumstances have led investigators to believe it is Schmitz who died. The retired farmer was last seen by family members Tuesday morning when he left home to burn brush piles on the rural property.
At approximately 2 p.m., firefighters from several area fire departments in Mercer and Darke counties were summoned to the scene to battle a field fire. Shortly after they arrived they discovered the body within the perimeter of the fire.
Authorities believe Schmitz had used an accelerant to start the fire and the flames somehow spread to his clothing. He likely fell to the ground, setting the cornfield ablaze, Darke County Sheriff's investigators speculate.
Schmitz, a Korean War veteran, was a former employee in the paint department of Union City Body Company in Indiana. He was a volunteer at several local agencies and facilities, including Briarwood Village in Coldwater, The Gardens in St. Henry and the Mercer County Council on Aging in Celina.
"I've known Clete for years. He was one helluva guy," said Thelma Fortkamp, office manager at the council on aging.
Fortkamp said Schmitz was the bingo announcer for the center's weekly game for senior citizens. He and his wife, Delores, also helped sort items for the agencies' annual garage sale.
Fortkamp said Schmitz had a great sense of humor and didn't mind her periodic teasing.
"He'd just look at you and grin. ... You could see it in his eyes, he was trying to figure out how he'd get even," she said. "We really enjoyed him. He's going to be missed."
Schmitz also was active at the St. Henry Catholic Church where he served as a lay distributor and Mass server.
"He was always such a faithful person," said the Rev. Tom Hemm, pastor of the St. Henry cluster of parishes. "He was so kind, so upbeat. That's how everyone thought of him."
Hemm said Schmitz also helped count the Sunday collection and gave assistance to the church custodian on occasion.
Besides volunteer work at The Gardens, Schmitz worked part time at the facility. He did various tasks such as busing residents to and from hospital and doctor appointments. He also held weekly communion services and helped with Mass, said Brenda Speck, the facility's director of nursing.
Staff and residents alike are shocked, she said.
"We are all very saddened," Speck said. "He was one of the most giving, caring people you could meet."
Staff members broke the news to residents on Wednesday and prayers were said on his behalf, she added.
"There were a lot of tears. The residents really loved him," Speck said.
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