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Shooting victim, 79, had retired to Arizona

Though a Republican, Phyllis Schneck had come to shake Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' hand. She had moved to escape the New Jersey winters; her husband died of cancer a few years ago.

January 09, 2011|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • Betty-Jean Offutt talks about her mother, Phyllis Schneck, who died in the Tucson, Ariz., shooting.
Betty-Jean Offutt talks about her mother, Phyllis Schneck, who died in… (Nick Oza / The Arizona Republic )

It was the snowy East Coast winters that drove Phyllis Schneck and her husband to Arizona a decade ago.

The couple, who met as teens in their home state of New Jersey, spent the final years of their 56-year storybook marriage in a quiet retirement community in northwest Tucson where she was known as an expert quilter who would stop by her friends' houses with homemade lemon curd and other confections.

On Saturday morning, Schneck, 79, headed to the Safeway where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was holding a "Congress on your Corner" meeting with constituents. Though she was a Republican, she had recently listened to Giffords on a conference call — mostly likely during her recent campaign, her daughter said — and was hoping to shake her hand.

While she waited to meet the congresswoman, a gunman, allegedly Jared Lee Loughner, opened fire, unloading 31 bullets. Schneck and five others were killed.

Schneck's friends remembered her as a kind and caring neighbor. She had run a women's club back in New Jersey and became an active member of her Presbyterian church in Tucson — often donating her handmade quilts and needlepoint projects to benefit area food banks and children's charities.

One neighbor recently saw her at a neighborhood luau, where she arrived in a green floral muumuu bearing her legendary pineapple upside-down cake.

A homemaker for much of her life, she centered her world on her three children, seven grandchildren, her 2-year-old great-grandchild, and her husband, Ernie Schneck Sr., who was the brother of her childhood best friend.

Schneck did administrative work for a time at Fairleigh Dickinson University, but was mainly devoted to community work and raising her children, her daughter said.

The kitchen was the center of activity in the family home, daughter Betty-Jean Offutt said. Ernie Schneck Sr., who worked as a sheet metal fabricator in New Jersey, was always home at five o'clock sharp so he wouldn't miss his wife's cooking.

"When the food is good, you go home," said Offutt, who described her mother's macaroni and cheese as "top shelf."

Ernie and Phyllis Schneck shared a sharp sense of humor and often bowled together. They spent summers in a small lakeside community in New Jersey. Ernie Schneck Sr. died of cancer several years ago.

"They had a wonderful, happy marriage for 56 years. … It was love," Offutt said. Her mother, she said, "would give you the shirt off your back.… If you didn't have anywhere to go, she'd invite you over to dinner."

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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