Northwestern Associate Director For Digital and Social Communications Doug Meffley (left) developed the idea for the "Schedule Cards for Kevin" campaign after being asked by Wildcats fan Kevin Schneider to pick up schedule cards for him on road trips.

Doug Meffley lifted each of the eight boxes from his file cabinet, their sides splitting from the weight of cards, balls and memorabilia inside. He set them victoriously on a cabinet outside his Northwestern office, smiling wide as he picked through the contents.

Days in an athletic office can be a stressful rush from one game to the next, but staff members kept taking timeouts on this day to stop and appreciate the scene. They had worked on this collection for three months, calling on their alumni, fans and athletics peers to pull the massive assemblage together. And as soon as any coach or staff member was asked about it, their eyes would narrow, pressed by a widening grin. Then they spoke as if they were presenting a 16-year-old the keys to their first car.

For Kevin Schneider, this was just as good.

Schneider, a 36-year-old man with a developmental disability, turned Northwestern into a regular social stop years ago, sharing with anyone who would listen the upcoming sports schedules he had memorized from the dozens of prized schedule cards he collected each year. Kevin talked stats and pitching matchups on his way to or from his shifts at a local grocery store, and left behind a trail of smiling, giggling faces whenever he left.

Northwestern staff members realized those visits were a gift. And this was how they could give back.

Their collection became a cornucopia of sports fads and promotions. Bobbleheads and sponsored memorabilia tested the constitutions of their cardboard containers, threatening to spill across the counter at any moment.  A Michael Jordan rookie baseball card (“in Chicago that means something,” Meffley assured) sat near a 1978 Los Angeles Angels schedule card. One box cost more than $23 to ship; some came from as far as Clearwater, Fla., and Lake Elsinore, Calif. But what astounded Meffley was their common link: None of their senders knew the person to whom the packages were shipped. They only knew Kevin’s story.

Kevin Schneider has been called "The Mayor of Dominick's" grocery store after spending 17 years as a popular employee.

His name might mean little outside Evanston, Ill., but spend any time in the Chicago suburb and you’ll eventually cross Kevin’s path. It may be while shopping in the Dominick’s supermarket on Green Bay Road, where you can hear him encouraging customers to come out to that night’s Northwestern softball game as he bags their groceries, or grilling the local alderman about the development of a restaurant site. You might see bus drivers waving to him on the street, or spot Kevin riding his bike from his one-bedroom apartment up to Northwestern’s athletics offices, where he stops in three times a week.

Nobody can remember exactly how Kevin found his way to those offices. But they understand his effect. They’re sure it started with a request for schedule cards – it’s his biggest passion. From there it spanned into discussions of the Chicago Sky WNBA team, WWE wrestling results and even women’s professional football games. And in the midst of those conversations, which typically centered on who won, lost, and perhaps the upcoming television schedule, Kevin’s smile took hold. It never left. He cheered with exaggerated, full-arm claps when Northwestern won and grinned ear-to-ear when they lost.

And over the years that smile worked its spell on the athletics department, and through his never-ending joy Northwestern’s staff found Schneider to be a constant reminder of why they were involved with sports in the first place.

“He puts everything in perspective,” said Julie Dunn, Northwestern’s assistant athletics director for career enhancement and employer relations. “We take ourselves seriously sometimes. And when he comes in he makes everything jovial.”

Kevin Schneider's perpetual grin is a constant source o joy both at the Dominicks grocery store where he works, and on the Northwestern campus.

Kevin worked that spell around Evanston for years. He effortlessly draws in members of the community with his viral enthusiasm and comical smile that looks frozen in a perpetual giggle. Like a celebrity, Evanston residents have approached him during dinners in Wisconsin, and customers at Dominick’s at times have stopped his mother, Susan Schneider, to compliment her son.

“He makes it fun to shop here,” one woman told her, while another overhearing the conversation nearby nodded her agreement.

He’s been called the Mayor of Dominick’s for his popularity, which has helped Kevin during some charity drives to become the store’s leading fundraiser. But he can also act like a politician, grilling 7th Ward Alderman Jane Grover about the development of a Kentucky Fried Chicken site or attending groundbreaking ceremonies for new apartment buildings.

But sports always forged Kevin’s tightest connections.

When Kevin was diagnosed with his developmental disability, he learned to read by age 6 through the box scores and game recaps in the local papers.

He would follow the Evanston High School team bus on his bicycle so he could watch their games, and when the parent of a player kept seeing him hot on the team’s trail, she questioned why he couldn’t ride with the team. He soon was its manager.

And when he couldn’t afford to attend Northwestern’s football games, a Dominick’s customer started offering him the season tickets she couldn’t use.

Sports spoke a language Kevin could understand. He struggled with nuance: television dramas were confusing, but baseball or football games played to parameters that fit his unique brilliance.

Kevin Schneider attends any Northwestern home games for which he is given tickets, and can often be seen in front-row seats cheering with exaggerated full-arm claps.

“In sports, there’s a winner and a loser, and there’s a number,” said his father, Marc Schneider. “He can grasp the essence of what’s going on.”

And Kevin latched onto it firmly. He read stats and calendars like they were novels, digesting pitching lineups, television schedules and box scores like bestsellers, and reciting them with Rain Man’s recall. Kevin learned the favorite teams of everyone he befriended, and each time they crossed paths he was armed with a log of that team’s upcoming ESPN broadcasts and pitching lineups. Any fan could appreciate the warm language with which he communicated.

And while Northwestern’s staff can’t remember when Kevin started appearing in their offices, they know those conversations provided their introduction. No doubt, they say, he came in looking for schedule cards to add to his collection. Slowly he inched from the entry way and down the hall to Meffley’s office, where for the next several years he recited vital details of upcoming San Francisco Giants games and random sports factoids.

Soon Kevin was omnipresent on the Northwestern campus. Go to a volleyball game and you’ll see him in the front row, roaring to every point with emphatic cheers. Go to the softball game and you’ll see him sitting next to the Wildcats’ dugout talking to the players on a first-name basis. And it’s the same at lacrosse and baseball, or virtually any other Northwestern game. And as Kevin worked his way from event to event, he worked a spell over the department before the staff realized what was happening.

He was disarming. Kevin’s developmental disability may have given him a polarized view of the world – one of winners and losers, sparing little of what came in between – but it virtually clipped the wire to sorrow. At least, nobody can remember seeing Kevin unhappy. And his perpetual giddiness became infectious. He’s the only person brave enough to walk up to Wildcats women’s lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller (winner of seven national championships in eight years), innocently ask why they played so poorly after a loss and somehow elicit a chuckle. But Kevin also drew laughs when he introduced himself to Northwestern’s new Assistant Athletic Director Paul Kennedy.

“I’ve heard of you,” Kennedy said in greeting.

“Yeah,” Kevin replied, “I’m a star.”

But Northwestern’s staff won’t waste a moment questioning Kevin’s ego. Instead, they laugh hysterically. It’s endearing. It’s Kevin.

That’s how he cast his spell over Northwestern’s coaches and staff. They laugh at his blunt critiques or self-aggrandizing statements, the grime of stress washes away, and they remember why they’re in athletics in the first place.

“We all kind of rally around Kevin,” Meffley says. “He’s a common thread through so many of our different sports and around our office on a day-to-day basis. If things aren’t going well or if we’re having a stressful day, Kevin comes in and it’s an immediate smile.”

Thousands of schedule cards and pieces of sports memorabilia poured in during the "Schedule Cards for Kevin" campaign.

But Meffley realized something last summer that was bothersome. Through all these years Kevin had been giving his spellbinding gift, and had asked for only one thing in return.

Schedule cards.

That is his biggest passion. Each year he collects dozens of cards, protecting them in plastic binder sheets typically reserved for baseball card collections. And he proudly shows them off, pulling the sheets from a manila envelope and pointing to some of the four-dozen cards to tell the story of its acquisition.

“I called their toll-free number,” he says, pointing to an Atlanta Braves card. Then, directing attention to a Washington Nationals card that sits alongside schedules for the Chicago Bulls, White Sox, and dozens of other teams, he says proudly, “My cousin got that for me. ” He’ll read each of the cards at home, studying their sponsors, free-giveaway events and television schedules −“the white noise of sports,” as Meffley says. And when each season is complete, Kevin transfers the cards to a Quaker Oats can for safe keeping.

And just as toll-free numbers and family members have helped him, Kevin routinely asks his Northwestern friends for assistance. He studies the Wildcats’ itineraries and plots out their road trips by the schedule cards the staff could find him. If it’s a Washington, D.C., trip, he assumes they can bring back cards for the Nationals, the Wizards and Capitals, and any other teams in the area.

Kevin isn’t shy about asking, either. He once called out to Northwestern baseball coach Paul Stevens from Rocky Miller Park’s stands to ask if he could pick up a schedule card during an upcoming road trip − in the middle of the fifth inning.

The staff tried, too. They’ve scoured chambers of commerce, stadiums and visitor centers, often following Kevin’s tips. But busy schedules and work demands often got in the way. For all the joy Kevin brought to the office each week, it stung their hearts to see his face dim, hear his deflated voice say, “I understand,” and leave empty handed.

If something as simple as a schedule card brought him joy, why couldn’t they fulfill such a simple request?

So Meffley found a solution, and in June he presented it at a weekly staff meeting: He would write a blog post on the school’s website, and tap Northwestern’s alumni and fan base to get Kevin schedule cards. He would tell Kevin’s story and what he meant to the department. With any luck the people would respond.

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” said Maureen Harty, Northwestern’s associate athletics director for compliance, who each year buys and donates season tickets to Kevin. “Anyone who’s ever had that conversation with Kevin, they know.”

After learning that team manager Kevin Schneider's bicycle had been stolen, members of the Evanston High School baseball team pitched in to buy him a new one. The photo of their presentation still hangs in Schneider's Evanston apartment.

It wasn’t the first time people have felt drawn to give back. In high school, while Kevin was managing the baseball team, the players learned that someone had stolen his bicycle. And while the teenager could read a bus schedule like the alphabet and navigate the Chicago routes with the same cool ease of his neighborhood streets, that bike provided his independence. So his teammates took up a collection, and together purchased a new, yellow hybrid bicycle. They gathered around Kevin, grinning as they presented their gift and took a photo that still hangs on the wall of his apartment − Kevin in front, a teammate’s right arm around his shoulder, pulling him tight.

Even then, Kevin could work a spell on those around him.

And within days of Meffley’s blog post that same spell started working its magic across the country. The Big Ten Network reposted the story and sent in a box of schedule cards. And from there they came both individually and by the hundreds. They included Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres schedule cards, and even the schedule of Pennsylvania State Rep. Ronald Marcico.

Matt Bentz of Pella, Iowa, paid $23.10 to ship a box that included a full-season series of White Sox baseball cards and Chicago Bulls schedule cards from their championship seasons. And the donors only piled on from there.

After a minor-league baseball blog reposted Kevin’s story, the Boise Hawks, a Chicago Cubs Class A affiliate, sent their schedule card and a few bonus items: a baseball autographed by the team, a hat and a Bobblehead of former outfielder Brett Jackson. Packages arrived from Purdue, Nevada and the Arizona Diamondbacks, and other fans contributed from Durham, N.C.; Everett, Wash.; and Erwin, Tenn. Some packages included notes explaining how Kevin’s story touched them. The senders hoped their donation made him happy.

By September the “Schedule Cards for Kevin” campaign had filled eight boxes, some on the verge of collapsing under the weight of baseballs, game programs, bobble heads and hats exploding outwards. And as they stacked up on Meffley’s filing cabinets and chairs, the Northwestern staff looked at the loot of memorabilia proudly, smiles broadening all around.

“He is so kind to so many people that when you discover that there is something he would like and it’s as simple as schedule cards, how can you not?” said Grover, who helped spread the campaign’s message through her ward’s newsletter. “If that’s what brings him pleasure, if that’s what makes him feel rich, then we’ll get Kevin schedule cards.”

When Kevin Schneider was given the collection of donations on his 36th birthday, the eight boxes filled the trunk of his father's car, and a shopping cart he used to transport them to his Evanston, Ill., apartment.

But when Kevin’s 36th birthday arrived Sept. 19, it was difficult to spot who felt more enriched by the collection’s presentation. Softball senior Emily Allard delivered the first box with a wide grin, and senior basketball player Drew Crawford walked up to shake Kevin’s hand. Softball coach Kate Drohan leaned over the counter as Kevin started sifting through the boxes curiously, and together they all sang happy birthday and cheered as he blew out the candle on an ice cream sandwich.

“Thank you everybody,” Kevin told the group. “This is amazing.”

Marc then helped load the collection into his car, and the image it created still strikes him comically. The trunk quickly packed with boxes, and Marc couldn’t get past the idea that people around the country responded to his son with such generosity.

To think, after Kevin’s initial diagnosis years ago his mother, Susan, worried that her son would struggle to make friends. Marc, too, worried about what Kevin’s future might bring. “And then it starts to show in junior high and high school, that there’s something special,” Marc said. “Just constantly amazing.”

And here was the latest amazing chapter, testing his trunk’s capacity.

“People around the country,” Marc said with amazement, “it’s phenomenal they could do that. And it’s phenomenal that Northwestern thought so much of their relationship with my son to do that.”

It started with Kevin’s willingness to give. The payback could last a lifetime.

 

If you would like to add to Kevin Schneider's collection of schedule cards, send them to:
Schedule Cards for Kevin
c/o Northwestern Athletic Communications
1501 Central St., Evanston, IL 60208