Pastor Don Schneider

Pastor Don Schneider, the retired leader of Mountain View Lutheran Church, was a larger-than-life presence in Ahwatukee.

Family and friends on Saturday will celebrate the life of the Rev. Don Schneider, the former pastor of Mountain View Lutheran Church whose contributions to the community for more than 30 years helped make Ahwatukee what it is today.

Pastor Schneider died May 23 under hospice care in Ahwatukee. He was 87. A Celebration of Life will be held at 11 a.m. June 9 at Mountain View Lutheran, 11002 S. 48th St., Ahwatukee.  To help the church plan for seating and lunch, attendees should contact info@mvlutheran.org, or cal 480-893-2579.

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Pastor Schneider began his service to God and man well before he was ordained in 1956 in Milwaukee and long after he retired in 1996.

Even before he finished Northwestern Lutheran Seminary in Minneapolis, he led a Danish Lutheran congregation; just four days before his passing, he presided over his grandson Jeremy’s wedding.

Pastor Schneider also exhibited a golden touch at fundraising – from founding and developing the church campus of Prince of Peace Lutheran in Northridge, California, his first assignment shortly after ordination, to help pressure the City of Phoenix to establish Ahwatukee’s first ballfields with the creation of Mountain Vista Park and, later, Pecos Community Center.

He became pastor of Mountain View Lutheran in 1980, when it was the only church in Ahwatukee, and made it a launching pad of sorts for several other churches in the community, including Corpus Christi, by extending the use of its premises to their fledging congregations.

The last charter member of the Ahwatukee Kiwanis Club, Pastor Schneider helped save the Ahwatukee Easter Parade when the Jaycees, which started it, could no longer continue the 42-year-old community event. Last year, he was the parade’s grand marshal and Parade Boss Mike Schmitt said at the time that he was “very deserving” of the honor.

“Can you imagine the Saturday before Easter Sunday morning, your parking lot overrun by parade activities?” recalled AFN founder Clay Schad. “Pastor Schneider was right in there with Mike Schmitt and it got bigger and better every year.”

Mountain View Lutheran has been in every parade, and though it began before he arrived in Ahwatukee, Pastor Schneider ensured the church carried on the tradition, helping to work on floats most years.

Ahwatukee historian Marty Gibson once wrote that Pastor Schneider “was a fixture in the community and a driving force behind Mountain View’s many outreach programs.”

Pastor Schneider “established Ahwatukee Preschool, which counts Arizona State University football players Brent and Zach Miller among its alumni, during his first year in town,” he wrote, noting he helped start the now quarter-century-old helicopter arrival of Santa Claus at Ahwatukee Plaza the day after Thanksgiving and played St. Nick for the first 12 years.

Gibson also wrote:

“As other religions’ parishes sprang up, Mountain View’s doors were open to Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians – all had a place of worship during their parishes’ infancies, thanks to the generosity of the church. Mountain View Lutheran Church was instrumental in fostering a sense of community in Ahwatukee. From 80 percent seniors in the late 1970s to 80 percent growing families today, Mountain View parishioners currently number just over 1,000.”

During an election debate last year, city Councilman Sal DiCiccio called Pastor Schneider a “titan” in Ahwatukee’s history.

In an interview last week, DiCiccio said, “That guy was everywhere…I don’t think there was a thing he wasn’t involved in. Pastor Don and Clay Schad were integrally involved in everything that has been accomplished today.”

That included Ahwatukee’s first senior citizen center, at 48th Street and Elliot Road. When that closed and the program was temporarily moved to Tempe, Pastor Schneider helped push the city to build Pecos Center, where Phoenix now operates an extensive program for seniors.

“Don has been a foundation stone of Ahwatukee since its inception,” said Scott Ryan, past president of the Ahwatukee Kiwanis.

Shirley Schneider, the pastor’s wife of 63 years, described her husband, DiCiccio and Schad as a trio of influences on Ahwatukee’s growth.

Paging through a thick scrapbook of clippings that trace her husband’s history from his ordination through his retirement, she portrayed him as a minister whose devotion to his wife and three sons was as strong as it was to each congregation he served.

Back in 1956 – a year after they had married – Pastor Schneider and Shirley drove with their first baby from Wisconsin to Northridge.

The congregation had no home and he arranged for it to meet weekly in an Anheuser-Busch brewery.  

He led a fundraising campaign that secured a chapel two years later and a church building two years after that. He served as pastor of Prince of Peace for 10 years, then moved to San Mateo, California, to lead St. Andrews Lutheran Church, where he remained for 11 years.

His son David explained, “My father looked for new challenges.” So Pastor Schneider let ELCA Lutheran Synod leaders know to keep him in mind if a need arose for someone to lead and helped grow a new congregation.

In San Mateo, “he wanted to started working with programs and people. He didn’t have to do any building there,” his widow recalled.

After 11 years, he took a two-year assignment in Sacramento leading a congregation that had been newly formed from the merger of two Lutheran churches. That assignment was particularly challenging because the two congregations were on opposite philosophical sides.

He became so frustrated with their bickering that he once confided, his widow said, “I thought the Lord and I could do anything. The Lord still can but I can’t.”

In 1980, the Synod told him of a new mission he might find challenging – in a place in the middle of a desert called Ahwatukee.

There, he established most of the current campus.

Along with the Ahwatukee Preschool and the senior center, Pastor Schneider created the Widowed Person Ministry, the Parish Nurse Program and many other ministries. He allowed the Ahwatukee chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous to hold its weekly meetings at the church campus.

He also served on the Governor’s Board for the Aging and was stewardship director for the Grand Canyon Synod.  

When he retired, he continued to serve, taking four interim assignments at churches that were between permanent pastors.

It wasn’t until six weeks before he died that Pastor Schneider’s seemingly boundless energy started to fade.

Just five weeks before he went under hospice care, he and his wife drove to California to visit friends.

And his humor continued to shine.

During a visit from fellow Kiwanian Moses Sanchez while under hospice care, the Republican candidate for Phoenix mayor, Pastor Schneider quipped, “I won’t be able to vote for you.”

Sheila Coonen, who also worked with Pastor Schneider on many programs and campaigns, said that a week before his death, “Don told me to remember that we live in the presence of a living God who loves and continuously forgives us and wants us to do the same for others.

“I believe that this is what drove him.  Don’s love for others was expressed in the many ways he served the needs of the people in this community. Besides being the first pastor in Ahwatukee, he was also the Easter Bunny in the Kiwanis Easter parade, Santa that flew in by helicopter to the Alpha Beta shopping center on Thanksgiving weekend and Hans of Hans and Franz donning a tutu to entertain the ladies at the annual Mother’s Day Luncheon.”

“There was nothing he wouldn’t do if it would benefit the community,” she continued. “When I asked him what he would like to tell the community, he said tell them to live a life of service to others.  It will make all the difference. He has made a huge impact on my life and challenged me to do a lot more than I ever thought I was capable of. This community and I am indebted to him.”

Looking through her carefully made scrapbook of memories, Shirley Schneider recalled how she had met her husband at a dance but then moved to California and didn’t see him for about a year. In fact, she had forgotten about him until she had returned to Wisconsin and ran into him at the wedding of a mutual acquaintance.

“After that, the rest is history,” she said. “We met in September and got married the following May.”

Later, she reflected, “It’s been a good life.”

Besides his widow, Pastor Schneider is survived by sons Phillip and wife Shauna of Poway, California; David and Kelley of Ahwatukee; and Stephen and Nellie of Tempe; seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren. His only brother, Jerry, died six days after his death.

The family expressed its gratitude to Hospice of the Valley and Aegis at Redwood Assisted Living Home “for their loving care and support.”

Memorial donations may be made to the Rev. Donald P. Schneider Seminary Scholarship Fund at the ELCA Fund for Leaders at elca.org or by writing to Evangelical Lutheran Church in America/ ELCA Gift Processing Center, P.O. Box 1806 Merrifield, VA 22116-8000.

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