Sperryville: A Rappahannock love story


Esther and Franklin Schmidt of Woodville in 2013.
Esther and Franklin Schmidt of Woodville in 2013.

When Esther Schmidt was 10, she and her best friend conspired to one day become sisters-in-law. Call it kismet, but not too many years later, Esther’s friend married into the Schmidt family. She wed the brother of Franklin Schmidt, and Esther married Franklin. Esther was all of 21; Franklin was 22. They were married for 48 years.

Late last week, Franklin, 72, passed away after a long illness, and a quietly courageous five-year battle. Esther was the love of Franklin’s life, and he was her forever man. He often referred to her as his bride. Together, they were a formidable photography and writing team. Their art, their wildly captivating photos, acclaimed glossies, decorated their bestselling books and portrayed the beauty and serenity of landscapes, architecture, interior design and lifestyles.

They also loved all things equine. Franklin, not too many months ago, wrote me excitedly while on one of their many adventurous travels, that they were “shooting a fabulous horse farm in North Carolina.” A photo shoot by them of my young Friesian gelding, not long after he was born, resulted in the cherished pictures that now hang in my home. Franklin captured him, just several days old, cavorting with his mama in lush green Rappahannock pastures, his wobbly long legs, glistening black coat and huge soft and expressive eyes masterfully expressed by Franklin’s total command of the camera.

Franklin and Esther were inseparable, traveling the country for their chosen careers. As Roger Piantadosi said in a Rappahannock News profile published in 2013, “The pair have worked assignments now in all 48 contiguous states — but whenever possible, they get to the job by driving there, four wheels pretty much on the ground at all times. They unload, do their work, then load up again, pick up the dogs from the kennel and get back home, a place they just enjoy being.

“One thing that the wooly, wide-open spaces of Rappahannock County make easy,” he wrote, “is keeping things to yourself — even if that includes your own successes. Which brings us to Franklin and Esther Schmidt. The dual Schmidts, citizens of Woodville since they made the leap in 1979 from weekend trail riders to full-time trailblazers, are each somehow slightly more than half of an always-working photography-writing-styling team. (It’s a complicated algorithm, Esther says, but for the most part Franklin’s behind the lens and Esther’s at the keyboard.)”

The Schmidts shot, wrote and edited for glossy magazines — including what they called their most satisfying milestone, Architectural Digest — and in large-format, full-color books. Yet, for the most part, they downplayed their successes among friends, and I have counted myself lucky to be included as one of those.

Franklin was a renaissance man — clever, articulate, his interests myriad and his accomplishments extraordinary. While he could write like the wind, his words and photos equally breathtaking, he was also a man of deep conviction and a man of action. Esther recalls that he was one of Martin Luther King’s bodyguards, a little-known fact. Better known was his leadership of the Rappahannock Democrats, his love of freedom of speech and his fearlessness in the face of controversy.

He was, Esther says, a “brilliant artist and gentleman, a kind man.” He was a gentle soul when it came to helpless, innocent animals. He came under a lot of criticism, when he decided to found RappCats back when there were no resources available to rescue stray and abused cats in the county. He’d told me countless times how frustrated he was to come up against roadblocks, folks who chided him and thought he was “nuts” to pursue such an endeavor.

RappCats was founded despite the fuss, and on their website a tribute to Franklin stands today: “Countless wonderful animals owe their lives and health to Esther’s and Franklin’s dedication. Franklin was a charismatic, compassionate, humorous and creative person whose passion and caring inspired people to step outside their comfort zone to help animals in need. He will be deeply missed by the community, but particularly by his friends at RappCats. Our sympathy goes to his wife, Esther, in this time of loss.”

Writes fellow animal lover Laurie Smith of Amissville: “Franklin and his beloved wife, Esther, saw that Rappahannock County needed a cat shelter. He decided to start a group with the aim of helping residents with problem cats, solving problems together as a community in true Rappahannock style. He was an inspirational and creative leader, with tremendous energy to get a job done. We will miss him but will continue our work in his honor.”

(RappCats plans a benefit on Nov. 6: Catstravaganza: An Evening of Jazz to Benefit Rappcats is 6 p.m. that Friday at the Washington home of John and Beverly Sullivan. The Meadows — which is another of the many beautiful homes Franklin photographed for a national design magazine over the years — is at 260 Porter St., and tickets are $50 per person. For more information, visit rappcats.org or call 540-987-6050.)

Esther tells me she would especially like to thank Sheriff Connie Smith and Deputy David Epley. When Culpeper Hospital tried to notify her that Franklin was in his last moments, she was homebound and unable to drive, due to a recently broken hip — and the hospital couldn’t get through to her because her Verizon landline was down, and there’s no cell coverage in Woodville. (So phone service in Rappahannock, or the lack thereof, is not just life-threatening but can also be . . . love-threatening.)

Not knowing what else to do, the hospital called the sheriff’s office.

Esther says she’s so grateful to the sheriff and Deputy Epley’s “kindness and sensitivity.” Epley drove her to the hospital. She missed saying goodbye to her Franklin by 15 minutes.

In the words of the gifted philosopher-poet Khalil Gibran:

Let us return to our dwelling, for the wind has
Caused the yellow leaves to fall and shroud the
Withering flowers that whisper elegy to Summer.
Come home, my eternal sweetheart, for the birds
Have made pilgrimage to warmth and lest the chilled
Prairies suffering pangs of solitude. The jasmine
And myrtle have no more tears.
Let us retreat, for the tired brook has
Ceased its song; and the bubblesome springs
Are drained of their copious weeping; and
Their cautious old hills have stored away
Their colorful garments.
Come, my beloved; Nature is justly weary
And is bidding her enthusiasm farewell
With quiet and contented melody.

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