Ninety-six-year-old Ed Schmidt is much like the homing pigeons he has built his life around.
He always returns to where he is fed and watered, in his case, Paul’s Restaurant in Elgin, where he is a regular five days a week.
Schmidt has been raising and racing homing pigeons since the tender age of 6.
“I was a kid and I was curious, that’s how it happened,” Schmidt said. “I just liked them right away, and I wanted to find out as much as I could.”
The aptly named Homer Mann, who lived down the street from Schmidt, took him under his wing and taught him the ins and outs of the sport.
Why did Schmidt choose homing pigeons over more conventional childhood pets?
“Why do you get attached to your dog? They’re just like them,” Schmidt said. “Pigeons have their own personalities, each one of them.”
By 14, Schmidt was hooked on the sport, joining the Elgin Homing Pigeons Club, of which he remains an active member.
Schmidt’s involvement with homing pigeons led him to be chosen as a pigeoneer in World War II as a U.S Army staff sergeant in the fighting 279th Pigeon Signal Unit.
Schmidt and his unit trained carrier pigeons to carry messages to troops quickly to areas that radio signals could not reach or posed a threat if sent over open air. The pigeons were taken to the front lines armed with small red capsules on their ankles that contained vital information to be taken back to headquarters. Due to the nature of their missions, these pigeons often were targeted and gunned down by enemy troops.
Only the best birds were used, and the elite soon were trained to fly at night. The birds are trained through the use of food and water, conditioning them to know where their loft or home is, a place to which the birds are determined to return.
“It’s an instinct they have,” Schmidt said. “It’s in their DNA. They know where home is.”
Some were trained as two-way carriers, able to return to two locations they identified as their homes.
Schmidt said he was very proud of the work his unit did in the war. Many lives were saved.
“I believe all of the real heroes are dead,” Schmidt said. “That’s just how I feel. Some of the guys were sent over on certain missions and didn’t come back. It could have easily been me.”
The accomplishments of Schmidt’s unit and his birds have been captured in two documentaries by Alessandro Croseri to be released sometime this year, “The Pigeoneers II” and “The Pigeoneers III.”
Schmidt and fellow pigeoneer Ed Gergits are featured in the documentaries.
“I think it’s great that they’re giving the war pigeons recognition. They did a great deal and they deserve it,” Schmidt said.
When Schmidt returned home, he didn’t arrive empty-handed. He had managed to bring home his favorite pigeon from the war, Lady, who acted as a constant shadow during their time together in the Army.
Upon re-entering civilian life, Schmidt had high hopes of becoming a veterinarian, but instead made a living through chick sexing. Schmidt would determine the sex of baby chicks within the first two weeks of their life.
Eventually, the hatcheries moved south and Schmidt moved, working for Milk Specialties Co. in East Dundee and then large feed brokerage company Tate and Lyle. Long retired from the corporate world, Schmidt fills his days as an auctioneer traveling throughout the South and Midwest.
Throughout all of his careers, Schmidt continued to be involved with pigeons, his wife, Norma, by his side all the while until her death four years ago.
“I was gone a lot and she kept watch on everything while I was gone, taking care of the pigeons and our Brittany spaniels,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt has a long list of president positions, including that of the Fox Valley Combine, Elgin Homing Pigeon Club, American Racing Pigeon Union and his most honorable, the Chicago Feed Club. He also was chosen for the American Racing Pigeon Union Hall of Fame and was given an award from the Dixie Southern Racing Pigeon Association.
“I was the only Yankee to ever be given the honorum,” Schmidt said, smirking.
The lifelong Elgin resident has built a name and long-lasting reputation in the pigeon world.
Friend and fellow pigeon enthusiast Rick Roberts has known Schmidt for the better part of 58 years and looks to Ed as a key source and ambassador of their sport.
“He’s really good with new fires,” Roberts said. “He gives the best tips on flying and care, and he’s one of the few giving guys in the sport, and you couldn’t meet a nicer guy.”
Schmidt and Roberts said they can’t deny the fact that the sport is dying and hope that it will make a comeback. While owning homing pigeons can be costly, it’s a great family sport, Schmidt said.
Schmidt said he owes a lot to the love of his sport and will continue to be involved in it until the end.
Schmidt checked the time on his watch, which fittingly has a picture of a pigeon on its face, and bid farewell before leaving for the next appointment in his busy life.
“I’m just the luckiest guy really,” Schmidt said.
“Pigeons saved my life, they really did.”By LINDSAY WEBER - firstname.lastname@example.org