My heart sunk when Ron Smelt called the morning of Sept 29th with the sad news his partner of 44 years, Dr. Max Schneider (Uncle Max), died peacefully at their home in Orange on September 28th at age 92 with his family by his side.
I hate getting those kinds of calls- especially when they’re about people I love and admire.
Schneider lived an amazing life.
An internist who retired at age 90, he changed the face of addiction medicine.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York, he used to joke that he started practicing medicine at age 10 as he assisted a fireman who needed a Band-Aid after fighting a house fire next door.
From that moment on, he was a fixture at the firehouse, and in later years, after he became a doctor, he volunteered as the fire department’s surgeon.
He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1942-45.
Graduating in 1949 from the University Of Buffalo School Of Medicine, where he did his internship and residency until 1952, Schneider went on to Harvard Medical School for a fellowship, completing his training in 1953.
Also in 1953 he accompanied a Boy Scout troop as one of the physicians for the Boy Scout Jamboree by train from Buffalo to Santa Ana California. Present location of that Boy Scout jamboree is Fashion Island. Giving him his first taste of California.
He practiced internal medicine and gastroenterology in Buffalo for 10 years before moving to Orange County in 1964.
His career turning point came when he was asked to cover a fellow doctor’s practice that provided treatment to many patients who were alcoholics, and he went on to become a pioneer in the field of addiction medicine. Today, recovery programs throughout California and the country include elements that are based on his work.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s he was involved with the Family Recovery Services at St Joseph Hospital (Orange, California).
He also had a career as an expert witness testifying in over 400 cases relating to addiction issues as well as medical malpractice.
From 1997 to 2012 he served as Chapman Medical Center’s director of education in the Chemical Dependency Unit.
I interviewed Dr. Steven Duckor, medical director of the Chemical Dependency Unit at Chapman Medical Center in July 2012 when writing a story about Schneider for the OC Register.
At the time I asked Duckor about Schneider’s impact on addiction medicine.
“We have him to thank for paving the road for all of us in addiction medicine. He basically developed the field. In the early 60’s people didn’t really want to deal with or take care of people with alcoholism. We owe this all to Max’s development,” he told me.
During Schneider’s career he produced 10 films and five booklets on addiction; authored over 60 papers; and lectured in 49 states, three Canadian provinces, and six countries.
He was a past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the California Society of Addiction Medicine.
Schneider was chair of the board of directors of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, first for Orange County, and later for the national organization.
He also served on the Drug and Alcohol Advisory Committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during the controversy whether nicotine was a safe drug or not.
Schneider was a faculty member at Harvard, the University Of Buffalo School Of Medicine, and the University Of California Irvine College Of Medicine.
In 1995, he was named “Doctor of the Year” by the Orange County Medical Association and was presented the “Golden Apple Award” for outstanding teaching by the 1995 University of California at Irvine Medical College graduating class.
But Schneider blazed more than just the trail of addiction recovery.
In a time when being gay wasn’t as acceptable as it is today, he never shied away from who he was.
When I interviewed him July 2012 after his 90th birthday/ retirement party, he told me he knew from the time he was six that he was gay.
“It was very difficult being a gay man back in the 1930’s and 40’s. My parents were accepting but I didn’t tell them until I was in my 40’s, “he said.
A longtime advocate of gay rights, a monumental moment for him was when the federal government recognized Gay marriage enabling him and Smelt to finally tie the knot.
Both men were quite philanthropic within the gay community.
I attended Schneider’s 90th birthday/retirement party, along with 500 of his closest friends.
What do you buy a 90 year old guy for his birthday?
Schneider wanted nothing more than a donation to the Gay and Lesbian Center of Orange County as a birthday gift – his friends helped raise $38,000 that night.
“It is a “Center” which makes it easier for people to live an honest life – a place where people can go to talk about their religious, family and societal conflicts and deal with it appropriately, ” he said.
He acknowledged the “Center’s” youth programs as well as those for the aged telling me, “I understand they now have a program for seniors- I won’t be attending, I hate old people.”
As I wrote about Schneider this week, I found myself smiling as I pictured him with his signature Mickey Mouse tie and remembered his dry sense of humor.
He was a cool guy.
As news spread of his passing this week people have emailed me and also asked Smelt if there were funeral plans in the works.
He says no.
“We are following his wishes in having no memorial or funeral service,” Smelt is telling friends.
When we spoke he explained Schneider viewed his 90th birthday and retirement party as his memorial where he was able to see and visit with his friends.
“Those who wish to honor Max should make a donation in his name to their favorite charity,” says Smelt.
What better way to pay tribute to this amazing man, then to follow in his philanthropic footsteps.